One of the most basic controversies in the church concerns whether a Christian can lose his salvation. Some claim the Bible teaches that salvation can be lost, either from sinning or because a person stops believing. There are several reasons for this. First, they are misinterpreting Scripture (I'll take a look at some of the passages in a moment). Second, many people think Christians can lose their salvation because they have known someone who professed faith in Christ, participated in church activities, perhaps even seemed to be used of God--then dropped it all and walked away. To them, that person lost their salvation. But this is an argument from experience, and experience is not a dependable teacher (we'll examine this argument as well). And third, some use the logical argument that if salvation is secure then we can live anyway we want (you guessed it, I'll take a look at that too).
Let's begin by examining some of the biblical evidence that salvation is a decree of God that cannot be lost--that Christians are eternally secure.
Several strong statements by Christ Himself should completely settle the issue. In John 6:37 Jesus says, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out." And in John 6:39, "This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of ALL He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day." If you look at the context, you'll see he is talking about us. Then, look at what He says in chapter 10, starting at v. 27: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father's hand." These verses are irrefutable evidence that salvation cannot be lost.
Think about the phrase, "eternal life" or "everlasting life." For instance, in John 5:24, "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life." It says the one who trusts in Christ has everlasting life. Not "will have" or "may have if he endures." He has salvation in the present tense. And how long is everlasting life? Forever, not temporary, according to Heb. 10:14 "For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified."
Also, notice that John 5:24 says "has passed from death into life." The perfect tense for the verb indicates that John sees this as a completed action. It is, in other words, an accomplished fact. Paul says in Col. 1:13: "He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love." This transfer from one state to the other is a major theme in the New Testament. Those who believe salvation can be lost seem to think of salvation only in the sense of the privilege of going to heaven instead of hell. It is a simple thing to them to think of losing that privilege.
Those who hold this position forget what a complete and radical transformation we undergo at the time of conversion. John 5:24 is just a preliminary indicator of this remarkable and supernatural change of state. Much of the New Testament is concerned with this transformation and its impact on our lives. Consider just five things that are involved in this transformation.
First, John 3 says we are born again spiritually. It is impossible to reverse our human birth and become unborn. You may become estranged from your mother and father, but you can never genetically cease to be their child. So it would also be impossible to reverse our spiritual birth and become unborn. Another word for this new birth is 'regeneration' in Titus 3:5. When that word is used in a wider sense in Matt. 19:28 it is for the millennium. The millennium will involve the total transformation of the earth to the Eden-like state it had originally. Can our spiritual transformation in the new birth be reversed any more than this millennial transformation?
Second, when we are saved we become a new creation, according to 2 Cor. 5:17: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." This is the new state of being resulting from the action of the new birth. Where the new birth emphasizes the radical transformation we undergo, the new creation emphasizes the radical new person we become. How is it possible to become an old creation once again? Can we be uncreated? Now if we had any doubt as to the extent of this creation, Paul dispels it by specifying that the old things have passed away. All things have become new. If I go out and buy a new car and decide I don't like it, I can give it back and continue using the old one. But if I have rebuilt the old car, sanded off the old paint and repainted it, torn out the upholstery and had it reupholstered, replaced the old engine, tires and electrical system and taken the old parts to the dump--how can I possibly untransform it and make it back into the old car? God's work in this new creation is more than restoration, it is actual creation: we have been created a "new man" in God's image (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
Eph. 4:24 makes it clear that we need to "put on" this new man in practice (see also 2 Cor. 3:18), but it also makes it clear that we have been created a new man in position. The Bible is also clear that we have a new mind (1 Cor. 2:16); this is not a matter of renovation of the old mind, but a new mind, namely the mind of Christ. John says that God will one day make a new heaven and earth, and a new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1, 2). The word 'new' here is the same as in 2 Cor. 5:17, "new creation." Do you suppose the new heavens and earth could again become old? Could new Jerusalem become old again? When God creates something new, it remains new.
Third, we have been baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13): "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body..." The Greek word 'baptism' comes from bapto which means "to dip or immerse" and was used for the dying of cloth. This complete identification with something new is powerful evidence of our radical and irreversible transformation. We become, in our baptism into Christ's body, an actual part of His spiritual body on earth. The removal of some part of His body would be like a tonsillectomy or appendectom--unimaginable for Christ's spiritual body. This casual reference to major surgery becomes even more inconceivable when it is multiplied over multitudes of supposed lost salvations over the whole church around the world.
Fourth, we are crucified with Christ, according to such passages as Rom. 6:6 and Gal. 2:20. Now though we were not aware of this when it happened, though we cannot feel it or sense it now, it is a truth given to us in Scripture. We must believe it. This is accomplished by the baptism mentioned in the previous paragraph. As baptism is identification, we are identified by God with Christ in His death (Rom. 6:4). In God's eyes, when Christ died, we died. This identification, by the way, includes being buried, resurrected, ascended, and glorified. Where Christ died FOR our sin, we died TO our sin (Rom. 6:10-11). Too much flows from this concept to investigate it here; the important thing now is that it has been accomplished. How then can it be undone? How can we be uncrucified? "We were buried with Him through baptism into death," according to Rom. 6:4. If this can be undone, I challenge anyone to explain how.
Fifth, and finally, there is another wonderful truth in Rom. 6:6, our old man has been crucified with Christ, "that the body of sin may be nullified." Much debate has come about because of the verb 'nullify'. None of that is of much help in this discussion. What is important is the fact of it. If the body of sin has been nullified, how can it be reactivated? Our co-crucifixion with Christ has nullified the power the sin nature has over us, and consequently our need to obey it. For salvation to be lost, this power would have to be given back to the sin nature once again. The thought of this is incredible.
This complete and radical transformation that we have seen demonstrated in Scripture disproves the oft-repeated teaching that salvation is not lost by sinning but by ceasing to trust in Christ. The logic is that since we are saved by believing we also can become unsaved again by not believing. If salvation were JUST a matter of believing this might be possible. But even beyond what has already been said there are many more ways in which our position is changed permanently upon salvation. Here are some facts concerning the Christian's position which are difficult to see as anything but very permanent: a predestined incorruptible inheritance kept by the power of God (Eph. 1:11; 1 Pet. 1:3-5), sealed for the day of redemption by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30), predestined conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29), predestined to adoption as a son (Eph. 1:5). How can all these things be true if our final salvation is conditioned on our freedom from sin or continued faith? We are not going to be completely conformed to the image of Christ in this life. Yet Paul says in Rom. 8:29 that we are predestined for that purpose. The word 'predestine' in Scripture means literally "to mark out, set, or appoint beforehand." For the Christian, conformity to the image of Christ, adoption as sons, and an eternal inheritance all are appointed by God before anything existed. Can God's predestination be undone? Can His determination of these blessings for the Christian be negated? Rom. 8:29 all by itself should prove that we cannot lose salvation.
One of the concepts mentioned above, the sealing of the Spirit, is particularly crucial to our discussion. Eph. 1:13-14 says (my translation): "In Him also you--after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, in Whom also you believed--you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, Who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the ransom of God's possession, to the praise of His glory." Notice that the sealing is done by the Holy Spirit, and by this sealing He guarantees our inheritance until the day we are finally ransomed (redeemed) out of this world. The Christian already has redemption (Eph. 1:7--a ransom pric--but final redemption will come at the great day of our meeting with Him (Eph. 4:30). If salvation can be lost, then the Holy Spirit's guarantee is no good. Can anyone honestly say that?
This seal that the Holy Spirit places upon us reflects the long usage of a seal to indicate ownership (2 Tim. 2:19) or security, often by royalty (Esth. 8:8; Dan. 6:17) or government (Matt. 27:66). For instance, the royal seal would be placed on a communication and would indicate that the contents were not to be tampered with until the communication arrived at its destination. Interestingly, the same word is used for the seal set upon Satan in the bottomless pit in Rev. 20:3. The purpose of the seal was "so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished." This is directly comparable to our sealing: same God, same purpose (until the intended time), same security. Satan will not be able to get out, will he? Neither will the Christian be able to "get out" of salvation. Thank God that our salvation is life and blessing, instead of death and punishment.
But aside from the complete and irreversible transformation, aside from the permanent positional truths, we can also know this teaching about losing faith is not true because of the limit of the role faith plays in salvation. Now this last statement should not be taken to diminish the enormous importance of faith in salvation. But faith is the condition, not the ground of salvation. In other words, our salvation is not grounded or based on our faith. It is the blood of Christ which pays the debt of sin and removes God's just condemnation from the believer (John 6:54; Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:7; 2:13; Col. 1:20; Heb. 9:12-14; 13:12; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7: Rev. 7:14). It is true, to be sure, that Rom. 5:1 says that we are justified by faith. But Rom. 5:9 says that we are justified by His blood. The translation 'by' in these verses is from different Greek prepositions. The preposition 'by' in v. 1 is one Paul uses a few other times to convey the idea of agency--"by means of"--but it is a little unusual. The one in v. 9 is the standard preposition frequently used to show agency. Paul, if nothing else, is making a distinction between faith and Christ's blood as the means for justification. Rom. 3:25 provides the solution: "whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith." The phrase "by His blood" is introduced by the same standard preposition for agency as in 5:9. The preposition in the phrase "through faith" is different and conveys intermediate agency. So Christ's blood is the primary agency of our salvation, faith the secondary or intermediate agency. The conclusion of all this is that faith, as the condition for salvation, allows us into the multitude of spiritual blessings we inherit; but legally the ground or cause of the salvation is Christ's death on our behalf. So it does not logically follow that simply "losing our faith," if that were indeed possible, would cause us to lose salvation.
So what about the teaching that sin will cause us to lose salvation? This is taught in various ways: either certain sins, or a certain amount of sin, or a certain amount of time in sin. In other words, no one seems to be able to agree on the definition of what about sin causes the loss of salvation. But we need to realize that God knew all about our future sin when He saved us. Romans 5:10 says, "For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." There is no 'except' clause here--no "unless you sin too much or lose your faith." Why would He reject a person for sin when they had been saved as a sinner in the first place? In fact, 1 John 2:2 says that Christ paid the complete debt for our sin before we were saved: "And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." All the demands of the righteousness of God have been met by Christ's sacrifice in our place. Therefore God can forgive our sins, not by being lenient, but by accepting Christ's atonement. If we had to keep from sinning after salvation in order to keep our salvation, then Christ's death on the cross would be incomplete.
Furthermore, God has made provision for sinning after salvation. He says, in 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." When we sin, we only need to agree with God regarding that sin and He will cleanse us. Of course agreement with God means we look at sin with the same revulsion as God. Implied is the renouncement and repentance that should follow. We must be honest with God and see things His way in order to have true confession--but the confession will bring cleansing.
Please do not try to make something out of the fact that John says, 'if' we confess. The Bible never says, "If we do not confess, we will be rejected." And there is no evidence that we should supply this thought. We need to remember that Scripture says that God chastens us for sin, He does not reject us for sin, according to Heb. 12:5-11 and Rev. 3:19 (same author, John). The 'if' introduces a grammatical formula which indicates uncertainty--but uncertainty concerning what? It is the same formula as 1 John 3:2, John 12:32 and 14:3. In none of these passages (all the same author) is there any uncertainty as to fulfillment of the condition, only as to when the condition will be fulfilled. The context of 1 John shows that 1:9 only implies uncertainty as to when confession will be made, not if confession will be made. It can justifiable be translated, "Whenever we confess our sins."
Another resource for when we sin in the Christian life is explained in 1 John 2:1, "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." John says "if anyone sins." Here would be the perfect place to warn about what happens when we refuse to confess. But instead John presents Christ as our advocate, one who stands beside and pleads one's case. And he presents no limits to Christ's ability as advocate on our behalf. Even if we do not confess or do not realize some certain sin, Christ pleads His blood shed on our behalf for the forgiveness of sins (see v. 2, "He is the propitiation for our sins").
God gives salvation to us as a gift. That is said very plainly in Rom. 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." If He gives us salvation in the first place, does it make sense for Him to take it back--for any reason? Now notice what Paul says in Rom. 11:29: "For the GIFTS and the calling of God are irrevocable." What cannot be revoked is secure to us, no matter what we do or how we change.
Think of the logic behind God's salvation. If we are unable to work for our salvation (Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 3:5), why should we have to work to keep it? If we needed to be saved by grace, does it make sense that the keeping of our salvation would depend on something other than grace? Salvation was secured for us by Christ's death on the cross. There He paid the price for our sin. Was it only for SOME of our sins; was it only for the sins I committed before salvation? That would be ridiculous, absurd--especially when the Bible never says a word to that effect.
God will not give up His glory (Isaiah 48:11). If the keeping of our salvation depended on us, then we would share in the glory for our salvation, and that is not possible. If salvation is the Lord's work, then we cannot share in that work. The condition for entering into salvation may be ours--believing in Christ--but the saving is His. And eternal life is a decree--our name cannot be blotted out of the book of life! See the discussion on Rev. 3:5.
What about the supposed Scriptures that teach salvation can be lost. The problem is these verses are applied to the wrong group (Christians instead of the nation Israel, for example), taken out of context, or just plain misinterpreted.
Heb. 6:1-9 is probably the most quoted to prove that you can lose your salvation. This passage is taken in various ways, even by interpreters who hold that a Christian cannot lose his salvation. Since the rest of the Bible is clear in its testimony (as we can see above) AND there are good possible ways to take this passage and still hold to eternal security, then Hebrews 6 ceases to be a problem. In fact, there are several good ways to see this passage and still maintain that a believer cannot lose his salvation. Here are the main ones: [taken from Hodges in Bible Knowledge Commentary] that the warning is against mere profession of faith short of salvation, or tasting but not really partaking of salvation (The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1315); that hypothetically if a Christian could lose his salvation, there is no provision for repentance (The Ryrie Study Bible, p. 1736); that a warning is given of the danger of a Christian moving from a position of true faith and life to the extent of becoming disqualified for further service (1 Cor. 9:27) [See Hodges BKC for this view]. There are also good explanations of this passage that relate to a believer's rewards. Like so many other issues, it depends on how the evidence is weighed.
But the weakest view of this passage is that it is speaking of a believer losing his salvation, for the simple reason that the illustration of verses 7 and 8 will not permit this interpretation. In the metaphor of the ground that brings forth thorns and thistles the ground may be burned but it cannot be destroyed. It is the useless produce which is destroyed. Therefore the passage--if it indeed has in view a believer--is talking about disapproval of the believer's works, NOT the believer himself losing his salvation and burning in hell.
Gal. 5:4 is another favorite of the conditional salvation theory: "You have become alienated from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen away from grace." Although those who say we can lose salvation hang a great deal on the expression "fallen from grace," they don't mention that the context concerns those who are trying to be saved by the law, especially through circumcision. The verb "to be justified" is in the present tense, so the phrase cannot mean "you who are (have been) justified by law." That would require one of the tenses expressing past action. But one of the uses of the present tense is to express a goal for the action. Therefore the idea that fits best here is the goal of salvation by the law. This verse has to do NOT with those who are already saved--but rather those seeking to be saved. When they attempt to be saved by the law rather than by grace, they have fallen away from grace.
Here are a few other 'problem' passages:
1 Cor. 9:27: "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." Paul has been discussing preaching the gospel. In verse 18 he says, "What is my reward, then?" Then through verse 24 he says his reward is winning people for Christ. In verses 24-27 he illustrates this thought of his reward by the picture of a race run for the prize. We must pay attention to the context--this passage concerns rewards in the Christian life, not losing salvation.
John 15:6: "If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned." But 'abiding' in Christ is the same as believing, as shown by comparing the use of the word in John 6:56 ("He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.") and 1 John 4:15 ("Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God."). Notice these are written by the same author. The one who does not abide/believe is cast out and burned.
Matt. 24:13: "But he who endures to the end shall be saved." Again, we must keep the context in mind. This concerns the tribulation where those who endure to the end will be delivered (the literal meaning of 'save').
Rev 3:5: "He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels." Many say that this proves someone's name can be blotted out after salvation. But notice this verse says "he who overcomes" will not be blotted out. Who is this? The answer is in 1 Jn. 5:5, "Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" Thus, the one who believes in Christ--one and the same with the overcomer--will not be blotted out. Apparently, the book contains the names of all humanity; those who do not place their faith in Christ will be blotted out.
One logical argument is used against eternal security. It is said that if salvation is secure no matter what I do, then I might as well go out and do anything I want. But the Bible specifically denies this idea. In Titus 2:11-13 we are taught to deny ungodliness. In Heb. 12:1 we are told to lay aside the sin that so easily besets us. Romans 6:1 asks the question, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" And the answer is, "Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" The words translated "Certainly not" are an exclamation of extreme impossibility in the Greek language. Normally, those who are in Christ would no longer be happy sinning--especially on a continuous basis. Furthermore, in Heb. 12:6, we are clearly instructed that God chastens those He loves. So, if a person were to sin because He were secure, he would be risking the chastening of a loving Father.
What then of those who have apparently fallen away? First of all, as I said before, we should not base doctrine on experience. The apostle John said of some of the false teachers, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (1 John 2:19). Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is, indeed, truly saved. Matt. 7:22, 23 says, "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" A person can appear to be saved, but not understand or perhaps not care what it is all about.
In the latter part of John chapter six, after Jesus' hard sayings about partaking of His flesh and blood, some of His disciples complained. We are told that Jesus knew that some of them did not believe (v. 64). In verse 66 it says, "From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more." This group had been called 'disciples', but He says they did not believe, and finally they left. From Jesus' very words, we know that they were not saved in the first place.
It is also true that the saved sometimes do not appear to be saved. Notice that, after talking about each one's work being revealed by fire on the last day, Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:15, "If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire." Also, Paul gives instructions concerning the man who had a relationship with his father's wife (not his mother), "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (2 Cor. 5:5).
O Christian! You who think you can lose your salvation by excessive sinning or losing your faith. Don't you see what you are doing? You who began by grace with no works to contribute are now trying to maintain your salvation by the works of personal faithfulness. Now, instead of "by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9), it is "initial salvation by grace, but continued salvation by works."
We have a tendency as humans to believe that nothing in life is free. So the vast majority of mankind believes they must work for their salvation. Many of those who get past this error still can't go all the way to completely free salvation. So they invest in a halfway doctrine that says we are saved by grace but must keep our salvation by works or by continuing in faith. These are, for the most part, real believers who were saved without any thought of losing their salvation. They only developed this erroneous doctrine under the influence of others. But they are going to find when they go to heaven that no one is going to be able to claim any merit before or after salvation. We will only be able to fall on our knees before the God of grace and glory and say, "You, Lord, have done it all!"