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3 Reasons Why I Believe in Eternal Security

Craig Smith on August 4, 2014 - 3:41 pm in Bible, Christian Living, Craig Smith, Theology, Tough Questions

Can Christians lose their salvation?

This is one of the more heart-wrenching and fear-inducing questions in the Christian life.  Unfortunately, the church has not reached a clear consensus on the answer, a fact which leaves many believers struggling with how to think about this issue.

There are two basic camps into which Christians fall with respect to this question.  One camp believes that salvation, once attained by faith in Jesus, can never be lost, taken away or rejected.  The other camp believers that salvation can be lost or forfeited when an individual loses their faith in Jesus and chooses to reject his or her relationship with Him.   

It is important - though perhaps impossible in a short article like this - to avoid oversimplifications of these two views.  For instance, the group that says salvation cannot be lost does not believe that an individual who claims to be Christian can engage in long-term willful, persistent and unrepentant sin and still expect to be welcomed into heaven.  Rather, they would argue that such people were never really saved in the first place but only put on a Christian “show” for a while. 

On the other hand, those who believe salvation can be lost do not believe that holding onto salvation is a matter of doing good works or that salvation is lost simply because too much sin has been accumulated by a believer.  Rather, they believe that, since we are free to accept Jesus, we are also free to reject him and this freedom persists after one enters into a saving relationship with Him; therefore, a Christian can always choose to turn away from Jesus and thus lose the salvation that is only possible in relationship with Him.

Unfortunately, debates about the question of whether or not a Christian can lose his or her salvation often involve uncharitable accusations based on oversimplifications and lack of understanding of what the opposing side is actually saying.

It is also important to understand that these two broad views on the security of salvation exist because the correct interpretation of the biblical teaching is not entirely clear when it comes to this subject.  There are passages which seem to support the view that salvation cannot be lost, but there are also passages which seem to support the view that salvation can be lost (or, more properly, rejected).  This is not, of course, because the Bible contradicts itself but because one side or the other has not properly understood what the Bible is saying in each and every verse that applies to this subject. In other words, the problem is not that the Bible itself is unclear but only that there are differences of opinion about what the Bible is actually saying in particular texts.  Because we cannot yet come to God’s Word entirely free of misconceptions, prejudices and various lenses that distort what we take away from Scripture, the Christian church has not yet been able to come to complete agreement on how to answer this question.  One day we will all know exactly what God intended to communicate about this subject and we will look at the various biblical passages and smack our heads and say “of course…I see it so clearly now!”  But we’re not yet at that point, so it is critical that we approach this subject with humility and grace.  This is not a subject which should be allowed to lead to divisions between Christians.

Having said all that, I will now explain what I believe on this subject, but with the caveat that I realize I could be incorrect.  The biblical teaching is not quite black & white enough for me to claim my interpretation is beyond question.  You might disagree with me and that is fine.  All I ask is that you keep in mind that I am answering the question “can a Christian lose his or her salvation?” on the basis of an honest attempt to understand what God’s Word says.  I don’t have an axe to grind with anyone…this is simply what I think the Bible is most likely to be teaching.  I also ask you to try to remember that I haven’t exactly arrived at my present belief overnight.  I have studied the relevant biblical materials in considerable depth over many years.  If you want to debate this issue a bit, I’m happy to do so, but please don’t just throw Bible verses out as though you think I probably haven’t even bothered to consider such texts.  Trust me:  I have considered them all.  I accept that my interpretation of those texts might be wrong, which is precisely why I am always willing to engage in a godly debate, but where we disagree initially, please don’t act as though your interpretation is beyond question.  If that were the case, then anyone who thinks other than you must be either stupid or terribly ignorant and that’s a very arrogant position to occupy.

So, can a Christian lose his or her salvation?  In my opinion, the most probable answer is:  no.

I presently fall fairly strongly into the camp that says once a person has entered into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, that relationship can/will never be terminally broken.  In other words, though this is a potentially misleading oversimplification:  once saved, always saved.

There are several reasons I say this.  The three points made below are by no means the only arguments that can be made in favor of security of salvation.  It is also certainly the case that I have not addressed all of the most compelling points made by those who believe salvation can be lost and there are several.  I have not intended this short article to be an exhaustive examination of this complex subject.  Rather, I have listed here three reasons why, at the end of the day, I find myself most comfortable saying that salvation, once attained by faith in Jesus, cannot be lost.

1.  The texts which seem to support security of salvation are generally clearer/more direct than those which seem to support the alternative.

What I mean by this is that many of the passages which have traditionally been used to support the security of salvation view seem to make that point directly; i.e. that seems to be precisely what the text was originally intended to communicate.  Conversely, the idea that a Christian can lose his or her salvation seems to emerge primarily as a possible implication of other texts rather than as the primary intended point of those texts.  For instance:

Romans 8:38-39  38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Philippians 1:6  6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

In both of these two examples, the central idea of the text seems to be the certainty that what has been begun in the life of the believer will be brought to completion.  This is not – or at least does not appear to me - to be an implication of the text but is rather the very point which the text was composed to communicate. 

On the other hand, most of the texts which seem to support the possibility of losing salvation do so by way of implication rather than by direct statement:

Matthew 7:22-23  22 "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'  23 "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'

Here, one can certainly make the argument that the ones who prophesied, exorcized and performed miracles were at one time true believers, but this interpretation is made less certain by the double-address (“Lord, Lord”) which seems to function in Matthew negatively[1] and by Jesus’ statement that he “never” knew them. In any event, it is not possible to say that his passage was constructed for the purpose of teaching that the salvation experience could be forfeited.  The passage might imply this, but it does not appear to have been intended as a direct statement on this subject.

Similarly, Hebrews 6:4-6 says:

Hebrews 6:4-6   4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,  5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come,  6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.

Again, I acknowledge that this passage might imply that salvation can be lost.  However, this is again made less certain by interpretive issues.  Is this passage speaking of individual believers or of God’s blessing on communities of believers?  Is being “partakers of the Holy Spirit” the same as being “sealed by the Spirit” (cf. Eph 1:13, 4:30) in the salvific sense?  If the issue here is the loss of salvation, why should it be that such persons can never be saved again (a position which most of those who deny security of salvation) do not necessarily hold to be the case in every instance when salvation has been lost)?

My point is simply that while there are various passage which might imply that salvation can be lost, there are no passages which state this directly as part of the clearly intended point the passage was written to communicate.  However, there are several texts which seem to directly state that salvation cannot be lost and this appears to be the very point the passages were written to communicate.  On the whole, the idea of security of salvation seems to rest more directly on the intended meaning of several passages.

2.  Security of salvation seems to make better sense of the atonement.

We are saved because the shed blood of Jesus pays the penalty of our sins.  At the moment that we willfully place our faith in Jesus, the atonement He purchased for us on the cross is applied to our sins, cancelling them out.  This is why the New Testament consistently speaks of believers as forgiven and free, new creations in Christ.  But if one can lose salvation, then this seems to suggest that our sins were not actually atoned for when we first trusted in Jesus.  Rather, it suggests that the atonement for those sins was made available only in a potential sense, awaiting some future application either at our death or at Jesus’ return.  But if that were the case, then we would not really have been forgiven as the New Testament describes us.  I suppose another alternative is that our past sins would be actually atoned for but our future sins would only be atoned for as we repented of them and this would cease to happen if we turned away from Christ…but this seems a very convoluted way of understanding the New Testament teaching:

Colossians 2:13-14  13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,  14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.   

Certainly this seems to say that all the Christian’s sins – past, present and future – were actually atoned for at the moment of salvation. This view, widely accepted by believers in both camps, coheres with the security of salvation view more easily than with the alternative.

3.  Security of salvation makes better sense of sanctification

Jesus did not die simply to forgive us for our sins.  He died to bring us into relationship with God and to begin the process of transforming us into the men and women He designed us to be.  For that to happen, He has given us the Holy Spirit who is changing us from the inside out (1Pe 1:2).  While it is certainly possible to grieve/resist the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, at least to some degree (cf. Eph 4:30), for a Christian to walk completely away from his or her faith would require that the Spirit had ultimately failed to accomplish this purpose in that individual’s life.  In other words, the loss of salvation would mean that the Spirit had been unable to overcome that individual’s sinful nature enough to keep them from later turning away completely.  This possibility of the Spirit’s failure would seem to be directly contradicted by Jude 1:24:

Jude 1:24  24 Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy,

It is possible that we could take this to mean that the Spirit is able to sanctify someone sufficiently so that they would never want to turn away from faith, but chooses not to exercise this ability to that degree.  But as above, this seems a rather convoluted and unnatural interpretation.

 _______

Again, as I mentioned above, I have not intended this to be a full-fledged investigation of the question of whether or not a Christian can lose his/her salvation.  If you are interested in a much more in-depth examination of the strongest arguments on both sides of this issue, I recommend reading Four Views on Eternal Security, edited by Stanley Gundry and J. Matthew Pinson.

At the end of the day, this question matters and there are unwarranted extremes of each view that lead to unbiblical behavior.  On the side of those who believe salvation can be lost, an extreme, un-nuanced view can lead to a works-based, fear-infused faith.  On the side of those who believe salvation cannot be lost, an extreme, un-nuanced view can lead to an unexamined, careless faith which can in some instances, give false assurance to those who have never really begun a saving relationship with Jesus.  Both extremes are to be avoided.

 

 

[1] In Matthew, as elsewhere, the use of a double-address seems to function as a kind of smokescreen employed by those who know that their actual devotion is questionable and who use extra words to try to redirect attention away from this fact.

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  • August 11, 2014

    Dr. Smith,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this subject. I would like your readers to consider a plausible alternative to your above interpretation. I too have read all the verses and studied them quite intensely. I’ve even been a participant in two of your classes on theology and a bunch of others on philosophy of religion and theology, resulting in two degrees I hope to pay off soon! Let’s look at your premises:

    1. You claim the verses for your position are more direct and clear, and require less implication. Hmm….

    Rom 8:38-9 – The context of these Romans 8:18 and onward verses is Paul talking about suffering. He makes the point that these external things, such as hardships, persecution, famine, nakedness, sword, etc. cannot separate them from God’s love. In vv. 38-39 he continues with other external sources–death happening to us, demons, powers, etc. The direct point is that these external sources cannot separate them from God and his love. How true! As I have hinted, these sources are all external to the person, which is the whole point. It says nothing about someone walking away from Christ after a long season of disbelief or rebellion! There is no indication this is on Paul’s radar. Same for Phil 1:6. Paul is expressing confidence that the Philippians will continue to follow Christ until he returns. I would expect him to have this confidence unless there was some reason to have doubt (which he doesn’t mention in the letter). Confidence not mean they will never fall away.

    One of the main texts against eternal security is one you quoted–Heb 6:4-6. Is this verse made less certain by “interpretive issues”, e.g. “sealed” vs. “partakers of?” That is a weak criticism. If I tried to give a full description of a Christian, I couldn’t do a better job than Hebrews 6. “Enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come!?” Have non-Christians, who you affirm these verses describe, partaken of any of these things? Not by a long shot. A question I would ask you–If you WANTED to describe a Christian, how would you do it differently? Contra your explanation, these verses DO have the direct intent of warning Christians not to fall away and giving them the consequences if they do so. “Warnings” to Christians is one of the major themes of Hebrews. Believing he is talking to and about non-Christians misses the whole import of the book–it is not his general audience or his referent here.

    Another Hebrews passage, Heb 10:26-31 is just as direct and clear. “Knowledge” in v. 26 is best interpreted as experiential knowledge and not “head” knowledge. I don’t have time to remark on Heb 3:6, 14 and Heb 2:1-2! These are all in the same vein.

    Romans 11:20-22 is a further clear and direct warning about apostasy (defined as falling away from the faith once held. The Augustinian definition of apostasy of falling away from “intellectual” adherence to the faith is no falling away at all–they have not COMMITTED themselves to anything, so there is nothing to fall away from.) In context, Paul warns Gentile Christians (not unbelievers) that they have been grafted into faith–Israel was the natural branch, they (Gentiles) are the wild grafts. However, even the natural branches were “broken off” because of unbelief. The Gentiles will also be “cut off” if they do the same. What does “cut off or broken off” mean except losing one’s salvation–that is the most plausible conclusion. Relatedly, this passage brings up the Israelites in general. They were “born” Israelites, but could still break the covenant and lose their salvation. Just look at the penalty for breaking the 10 Commandments–the penalty for breaking the first seven is DEATH, or less frequently, expulsion from the nation. Covenant-breaking was frequent and long-term; only a “remnant” was ever saved.

    Jesus has a similar conclusion–“he cuts off every branch IN ME that bears no fruit” (see John 15:1-8). Unbelievers are not IN Christ, they can’t abide or remain since they were never IN. The audience is disciples. Unproductive branches are gathered and BURNED, a metaphor for destruction or hell. Unbelievers were never a branch to begin with. I don’t know how much clearer Jesus and Paul can be.

    Paul also directly mentions a concept he emphasizes REPEATETDLY–the concept of “if you continue.” For example: Col 1:23, Rm 2:7, 1 Tim 4:1, 16, 5:15, 2 Tim 2:11-13. The theme of abiding and persevering is strong here. The consequences implied are not “you are backsliden and you will suffer loss of reward in heaven, maybe getting in by the skin of your teeth.” The strong implication is that one will cease to be “reconciled” and receive “eternal life.” This same idea is confirmed under the Old Covenant by Ezekiel in ch. 18. If a righteous person leaves their righteousness and commits sin, will they LIVE? No, they will die! (Ezek 18:24). This concept is also very clear and direct.

    2. Makes sense of the atonement. Hmm….. The verse you quote does not relate to any of the above concepts. Being forgiven and having our debt cancelled is great. The question the verse does not address is–is this permanent regardless of the further actions of the person?

    Your answer also belies a very judicial-only view of salvation. It is true as far as it goes, but it neglects the more central relationship aspect, which is why the judicial is important anyway–the goal of being acquitted is so we can be brought into relationship. Relationship has been God’s goal from the beginning. “Paying for sins” is a necessary part of beginning our God-human relationship. Atoning for sins “past, present, and future” is true, but you interpret that in a way against all the above points I’ve made. This is not “convoluted;” changes in relationships happen, even between God and humans.

    3. Makes better sense of sanctification. Yes, Jude says the Spirit is “able” to keep us from falling and true it is–but that is not the only ingredient in our relationship with God. That implication neglects the above evidence. You are afraid this will mean the Holy Spirit has “failed.” I don’t find the Scriptures describing the Holy Spirit’s activity with this concept. Does the Spirit really “overpower our sinful nature?” The Bible states he GAVE us that power, but we must USE it. If it is only about the Holy Spirit overpowering in that way, how can Christians sin at all?? Continuing on–if you want to stick with the “failing” concept, you would have to say the Holy Spirit, and the Godhead, has “failed” miserably since only a “few” seem to have responded to God’s grace throughout history. Are you sure you want to go there? However, the Spirit woos, convicts, teaches, but never is said to overwhelm or coerce. Is the Spirit grieved every time an unbeliever dies in his or her sins or a Christians walks away from Christ? Of course. If God wanted to guarantee 100% success, he would have made us holy by force, but then where would relationship be? If anything fails, it’s monergism. Relationships always engender risk and God took some when he created us the way he did.

    Finally, do my conclusions mean Christians can lose their salvation at the drop of a hat? Certainly not. It appears God rarely gives up on anyone, even after they repeated reject or neglect him. Apostasy is probably a very rare occurrence after much wooing, waiting, punishing, etc. on God’s part. When it appears that a person simply will not respond, God takes his Spirit away; there is nothing more he can do. Should a Christian who loves God and obeys all they know of his wishes be afraid of losing their salvation? No. And, if Christians sin, as 1Jn 1:9 says, we have an Advocate with the Father. We confess, repent, and move on, endeavoring to not repeat the same offense. Some of us struggle with certain recurrent sins more than others–we need to especially rely on God and other helps to overcome it. Should a Christian who “neglects” their salvation, as Hebrews puts it, be afraid. They should start to be. Anyone who pays little attention to God, neglects to stay close to God through prayer, Bible study, and fellowship, who is not diligent to avoid sin, but excuses it, who doesn’t give a good witness for their faith with words and deeds has already rejected a lot of God’s wooing already. God disciplines those he loves; he doesn’t just let them wander without responding. Those kind of folks need to pay attention, be counseled and warned by fellow believers who care for them. Their neglect, or even repeated angry defiance, needs to be repented of, or as Rev 3:1-3, 5 says, he will remove their personal lampstand and blot their name out of the book of life.

    Mike Christensen
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  • August 14, 2014

    In my opinion, there are verses in Romans 8 that are clearer indicators that believers can indeed lose their salvation. For example Rom 8:12-13: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation-but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For IF you live according to the flesh, YOU WILL DIE; but IF by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, YOU WILL LIVE.”

    Paul’s warning is a somber one as these verses describe the potential death of born-again believers, referred to as the brethren in v. 12. If this death were not a real possibility, the warning would be nonsensical. We also know that this warning pertains to spiritual death – not physical death – because everyone dies physically irrespective of how we live our lives. Moreover, one must have spiritual life in order to be in danger of spiritual death. You cannot threaten a spiritually dead person with spiritual death. Such a person is already dead. Therefore, it must be concluded that these are regenerate brethren who are being warned of dying. Also note that this verse is conditional – not unconditional – as indicated by the word “if.” IF believers walk according to the flesh = they will die. IF believers walk according to the Spirit = they will live.

    Those who adhere to eternal security are fond of pointing out that there is no condemnation for those in Christ citing Rom 8:1. However in its proper context, v.1 is conditioned by the clause in v.4 which states: “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Thus, “no condemnation” is only promised to those walk by the Spirit which perfectly coheres with verses 12-13.

    Evan
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