3 Reasons Why I Believe in Eternal Security
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 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.
 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.