“My wife and I really enjoy and appreciate your daily messages on TV. I have looked through your website and I have a question concerning your position on a certain issue which is very important to us. Do you believe that a person can lose his salvation or do you believe that once a person is saved it is forever (John 6 & John 10 etc)? Thank you for you excellent Bible studies.”
Thank you for your question, Dennis. This is a theological tug of war and has been for quite some time. If I’m being completely honest, I just want to walk up and cut the rope! Not because these types of debates are dubious or incredulous, but rather because I think this question of how salvation works, in particular, is misleading and poorly framed. It has been proliferated by an over-rationalization of tightly wound abstract theological systems where common sense, practical understanding, and living out the Christian life are caught up, even tangled, in a web of theories and what-ifs. In turn, it has also caused a lot of insecurity for some people and now carries with it a lot of needless emotional baggage. And because of this, the doctrine of eternal security (or perseverance of the saints) is escorted, if not at times dominated, by a deep misunderstanding of belief, love, and moral responsibility. Which is to say, I think the real trouble is how this debate translates from academia into practical space and the everyday world. While Pastor Rod and I are deeply convinced that Scripture testifies to eternal security of true believers (John 6:35-40, 10:28-30; Ephesians 1:13-14, 4:30; Romans 8:35-39; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, 5:1-5), justified by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the debate itself is misrepresented and, in my view, a symptom of a greater issue.
In the first world Church, life application of doctrine is largely a verbal critique of consistent systematic thinking over and above a full inward and outward manifestation of Christ in all areas of our life. Popular dilemmas and questions like this tend to be a symptom of that way of thinking, which can detract from understanding the pattern of New Testament teachings (2 Timothy 1:13-14; Romans 6:17-18, 12:2), and by consequence radically shift our perception, perspective, and approach on matters of perseverance, endurance, tests, trials and tribulation alongside God’s personal sanctifying relationship through salvation. Theologians and philosophers can fall prey to looking at these issues as if it were a divine mechanism put in place––as though God were a reductionist! I fear we may run the risk of letting this heated philosophical dilemma get in the way of focusing on Christ.
Let’s consider both sides of the debate carefully from a practical vantage point, and then bear with me as I explain why I think the debate itself stands on a pretense of philosophical exacerbation and what the proper Christian sense of salvation ought to embrace.
Once Saved, Always Saved
The general idea here is that “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). Once done, you are saved or “sealed for the day of redemption” as Paul puts it. This affirmation of salvation is testified by the deposit, regeneration and inner witness of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-15; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6; John 14:26; Titus 3:5). The language of John 3 that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (v.3), and “born of the Spirit” (v.8), and “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (v.16), which is later verified by Peter (1 Peter 1:23), strongly testifies to the eternal security of true believers. A person eternally sealed for redemption is, then, presumably corroborated by how Paul describes the judgment process on that Day and the final condition of Christians who continue to do ungodly works or live in deplorable, evil lifestyles (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, 5:1-5; Ephesians 4:30). But there is a complication with how this view is taught and socializes into Church culture when we look at someone else, which in turn may affect how people look inward.
One of the primary complications of teaching this view is the way a person can perceive it. There are many people who believe in “once saved, always saved” and then go out and live in all manners of conscious sin, with no regard for their faith or good deeds, and yet still believe they are saved because they believed in Jesus at one point in their life (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21). Others live idle or complacent lives with no intention of doing good works (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10; 1 Timothy 5:13). Worse, some even go as far as to pit their theology of faith versus works between this issue and teach they can live sinfully because they are not saved by works, good or evil, but by belief alone. But, of course, the counter argument is that people who act in this way do not actually believe (Matthew 7:21-23; 1 John 3:8-10). As Christians with the Holy Spirit, we should have an outright aversion to evil behaviour and desire to do good (Romans 6:1-6, 12:9-13). True belief walks hand-in-hand with perseverance (Hebrews 6:11-12; Philippians 1:6, 2:12-13, 3:12-14; Matthew 24:13; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; 2 Peter 1:5-11; John 15:1-17). So, what’s happened here?
These folks tend to prioritize the retrospective moment of confession over the lifelong relationship of perseverance and sanctification that comes through the Holy Spirit, as if the moment of rebirth was a special encounter and the closest experience one will ever have with God (even though the word salvation is more often used in the future-tense as something we, who are truly in Christ, move toward). The result, a person can think they believe and think they are saved based on a false understanding of belief, which is quite common in our culture (more on this at the bottom). Which is another way to say some are, more or less, delusional on their own sense of assurance, not fully accepting Christ and yet not willfully rejecting Him either. They are somewhere between pagan and apostate, worse off than before (cf. 2 Peter 2:20-22).
Now, depending on how you were taught to look at Scripture, there might be a bit of a discrepancy afoot: How can someone be saved for eternal life even if they live in sin (1 Corinthians 5:5), but also not be saved if they practice sin (1 John 3:9-10)? This is a big dilemma for some people! The immediate solution to this discrepancy, however, is to change our “camera angle”, so to speak; to reframe our scene (dilemma) from a clear vantage point and focus in with the pattern of the apostolic teachings.
When we look at how salvation works in others, we need to think progress. Salvation is not about a single moment nor is it annulled by increments of sin –– for we all sin, great or small –– it’s about direction and destination: Which way are they going? Are they heading toward God or Satan? Do they exhibit sinful habits on their way out of sin, however slow or passive the transition might be, or are they delving deeper into perverse habits of perpetual conscious sin without repentance? As for the latter, the state of someone else’s soul becomes a question, not affirmation of condemnation (that is beyond our paygrade: Romans 10:6-8; Jude 1:3, 9, 20-23a; 1 Corinthians 7:16). Backsliding is not throwing salvation away necessarily; perhaps, they are being tested (James 1:2-4, 12-15), and failing miserably (Ephesians 4:30)! Or, it is precisely their excruciatingly deplorable lifestyle that “grieves the Holy Spirit” enough to bring them back to proper worship in Christ. And for apostates who return to the faith, Paul encourages the Church to forgive, comfort, and love them, so they will not be overwhelmed with excessive sorrow (2 Corinthians 2:6-8; James 5:15-16, 19-20; Jude 1:3, 20-23a). So, again, the way we frame this doctrine can affect how we apply it in our life and look at people struggling with sin. At bottom, we should be asking: Is there any evidence of perseverance?
There is a reason why the apostles do not just say to those who verbally accept Christ, ‘You’re saved! That’s it –– it’s done. Don’t worry about it’. In fact, what does Paul say to the Corinthians who live in perpetual sin (2 Corinthians 12:20-21) and likewise demand proof that Christ was truly speaking through him? Consider his words carefully, he was speaking to a culture not unlike ours: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5-6) There is good reason why the NT is chock-full of warnings not to be deceived.
On the other side, some think that by living in sin, they will eventually fall away from God and lose their salvation in the process, as if one can lose salvation by accident, deceit or trickery. It is true that by not fully following Christ in your life, you will eventually slip, stumble or fall in some way, which opens the door for deceit. Jesus Himself testified to the possibility that even the elect might be susceptible to great deceit (Matthew 24:24), and Peter speaks of those who get “entangled” and then “overcome” or “defeated” by evil (2 Peter 2:20-22). If someone is walking away from Christ by deceit, whether slowly or speedily, then it seems that he or she does not fully believe in Christ with all of their heart, soul, strength and mind. There was an opening and the enemy got in. But this view does not explicitly reject or counter the doctrine that true believers are eternally secure, it just brings into question what true belief means.
A major problem with this view, too, is how often it is exploited by false doctrine such as salvation by works, which teaches that good deeds like coming to church, volunteering, tithing, and so forth earns or merits salvation, to ensure you don’t lose it. These types of works, in particular, have a self-referential bent toward religious merit, which transforms good deeds into habits of self-interest or spiritual points. Far from self-sacrifice, it opposes the atoning power of the cross! I have no space to get into it now, but this is just plainly false. If you cannot work your way into Heaven, you cannot work your way out of Heaven (Ephesians 2:8-9). But this is also not the real position or argument that Christian advocates who hold this view take.
When a Christian theologian or philosopher claims you can lose your salvation, it is usually argued that the person has the freewill to outright reject Christ; fully sober, conscious, and understanding of the gravity of his or her confession as “partakers”, “sharers” or “companions” of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 6:4). In this scenario, the most significant question is twofold: Can a person with the Holy Spirit reject the Holy Spirit? And if so, is that the unforgiveable sin spoken of in the Gospel accounts and, presumably, in Hebrews (Matthew 12:31-32; Luke 12:10; Mark 3:28-29; Hebrews 3:12-14, 6:4-8, 10:26-27)? While I think there is justifiable resolve within the text itself for it not to contradict eternal security (if we harmonize: Hebrews 6:8; 1 Corinthians 3:15, 5:5; Matthew 18:7-9), we have to keep in mind that this is not some unconscious falling out of faith, it is supposedly an explicit, desirable and deliberate rejection of Christ –– willfully revoking repentance, fully aware of the warnings and consequences to come. In other words, it is from eternal security that one rejects eternal security. As a result, the outward expression of one’s apostasy can appear as a bitter, hostile opposition or a careless, hardened indifference.
Personally, Pastor Rod and I don’t see how it’s even possible let alone desirable for a person to reject Christ if he or she is truly born again (1 Peter 1:3-5), thereby acknowledging the gravity of sin and evil in their life, and truly loves God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind, especially if God is love and first loved us (1 John 2:19, 4:7-12, 5:13). In other words, how can someone who is baptized in the Holy Spirit (God), fears the Lord, and truly loves Love (God) walk away from that relationship? To that, we must appeal to deep theological and philosophical dilemmas like the nature of freewill and predestination. While questions/concerns of this kind are legitimate in certain spaces, they are theoretically curved and not necessary for living your day-to-day life. It ends up becoming an unfalsifiable philosophical discussion with no practical value for how we ought to live. It has little if nothing to do with those who actually persevere and, at best, serves as a warning for those who don’t (2 Peter 3:17-18). The solution is pretty simple: Do not reject Jesus Christ!
There is a complication with this view, too. As I said before, we do not know the full extent by which a person rejects Christ on a spiritual level, so we must be hopeful in prayer and perseverance that the person who “rejects Christ” will return to Christ in full repentance. A person may not be rejecting Christ but a false representation of Christianity, whether misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misrepresented. Or, perhaps, it is only a partial rejection verbally embellished as full. Whether impulsive or confused, we should not be hasty to judge either way (Matthew 18:15-17); but again, do as Paul encourages the Church to do when one repents: forgive, comfort and love them, so they will not be overwhelmed with excessive sorrow (2 Corinthians 2:6-8; James 5:15-16, 19-20) and show mercy on those who struggle with doubt (Jude 1:3, 20-23a). –– Repentance is always on the table for true believers (Revelation 3:1-3).
What’s the Difference?
What, then, does this question of eternal security hope to resolve? Or rather, what is the real underlying question being asked? Is it not true that if we have faith in Christ who conquered death, if we follow and serve God with our whole life, if we love Him with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind, and love our neighbour as ourself, then we will be saved for eternal life? ––Of course! Is it not true that one person who is throwing away their salvation can appear identical to another person who lives in sin yet claims to believe but has no roots in Christ? Yet, both people know they can repent at any given time. So, practically speaking, what’s the difference? As Christians, our personal responsibilities do not change. We still ought to repent for our sin, pray for the lost, persevere through trials and tribulation, help the needy, love our neighbour, and so on. And is it not true that God knows who is saved and who is not? So, then, what are we actually debating about?––Geez louise!
This is why, I think, the debate of eternal security is misleading: Our cultural understanding of belief is idle, our sense of perseverance is impersonal, and our frame of reference is tilted toward philosophy not practicality. From God’s vantage point, of course eternal security is true in the ultimate sense. From man’s vantage point, it’s a little more complicated than that. But the Holy Spirit is apparent and discernable in those who persevere (1 Thessalonians 1:2-7).
Scriptural Belief and Love
Belief and love have thinned out quite a bit as of recent. In Western culture, each word has become, more or less, a strict inward feeling or mental action, a dire contrast to the Scriptural meaning of belief and love which correlates to and is complemented by external action and outward expression (James 2:14-26; 1 John 2:3-6; John 14:15; Matthew 5:16; Titus 1:16).
In NT context, belief is not restricted to a proposition, opinion or judgment, though it includes it; belief is the full integration and expression of something into yourself. If you actually believe in it, you will do it (James 1:22-25). If you actually love someone, you will persevere for them–––dare I say, as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2) or even sacrifice your life for them; as Christ explained in John 15:13 as the full expression of loving your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:25-37; John 13:34), and later exemplified on Calvary. The point is, you will behave more and more in like manner of Christ when you truly believe in Christ because the Holy Spirit will affect more and more areas of your life over time. This is sanctification. True belief is not static, complacent, or idle, nor is it limited to a single moment or an overnight experience –– it’s living and active. True belief does not remain a seed, it grows and bears fruit (Matthew 13:1-8; 1 Peter 2:1-2, 12; Galatians 2:22-25). And if Christ died for our sins once and for all (Hebrews 10:10-14), and you truly, fully believe and thus grow in Christ, then you will be saved. Period.
The Underlying Truth
Here in lies the heart of the issue: Eternal security is emotional security. Some who struggle with doubt or sin may feel like they’re slipping away and need to know that God’s faithfulness is bigger than their trouble (and to that, He certainly is! 1 Corinthians 1:7-9), some struggle to forgive themselves, while others worry about their spouses, children, parents, or friends who are of hardened heart, idle, lukewarm, or apostate and have fallen away from the LORD. To this, there is no blanket solution or system to fall back on (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:16-17). The Holy Spirit ought to be the anchor of our entire life. Focus on the goodness of God, do not linger on everything you’ve done wrong or that has gone wrong. Be consistent and persistent in Christ, and don’t do it alone. In fact, the apostles call for perseverance in togetherness (Hebrews 6:11-12, 10:24-25, 32-36; 1 Timothy 6:12). Or has the privatization of belief made us anemic in this sense? The gut-wrenching struggle of watching those you love, who are in desperate need of spiritual help and the gospel, is all part of suffering with Christ (Romans 8:16-17; 1 Corinthians 13:6-7; James 1:12, 5:10-11). After all, it’s for whom Christ suffered and died. This is the pattern of teaching that underscores the heart of perseverance: sanctification over systemization, self-sacrifice through suffering, ceaseless prayer in supplication, endurance in tribulation; truly believing, always hoping, forever growing and fully loving our Lord Jesus Christ! And if God is with us, who can be against us?
Thank you again for your question, Dennis! And thanks for watching our program. May God bless you and your wife!
Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.