Many Protestant churches, especially those with roots in Calvinist theology, believe that Christians who have been saved can never lose their salvation. But does the Bible teach this?
Our last two articles in this column have covered the biblical doctrine of salvation. We have discovered what salvation is and when it actually takes place. But there’s another question we have to address: Can a Christian lose out on salvation?
Some Protestants would answer no because they believe a doctrine commonly called “once saved, always saved.” Technically, this belief is called the doctrine of eternal security (meaning the saints’ eternal salvation is completely secure). It is also called the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (that God’s saints will persevere).
This doctrine is commonly found in the reformed Christian tradition that was heavily influenced by the theology of John Calvin. Here’s how The Westminster Confession of Faith describes this doctrine:
“They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved” (chap. 17, sec. 1, “Of the Perseverance of the Saints”).
Those who accept this doctrine believe it is impossible for someone who has been selected by God for salvation to ultimately lose that salvation. This belief is closely connected to the Calvinist view of predestination, which teaches that long before He created the world God had already selected everyone for either eternal salvation or damnation in hell. According to this thinking, there is nothing a person can do to lose salvation if God has already predetermined that he or she will receive it.
But did Jesus Christ teach that all who believe in Him are guaranteed salvation?
What Jesus taught
Did Jesus teach that those called by God today are assured eternal security?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used salt as an analogy to warn His disciples of a very specific danger. “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (Matthew 5:13).
Jesus likened His disciples, both then and now, to salt to make two points. First, He showed how Christians are to metaphorically season this world through their character and good conduct (verse 16). Second, He warned Christians of the danger of losing their flavor—in other words, falling away from their faith and no longer seasoning the world. He warned that if that happened, just like bad salt they would be “thrown out and trampled underfoot” (verse 13). This was a clear reference to a verse in Malachi that describes the reward of the wicked (Malachi 4:3).
Later in His ministry, Christ warned that only someone who “endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
The doctrine of eternal security tells Christians they can have total assurance they will ultimately be saved, but Jesus warned that we can be saved only if we stay faithful to the end of our lives or the age.
The danger of falling away from God
Let’s look a bit closer at the issue of a Christian falling away from God.
Those who hold the “once saved, always saved” doctrine acknowledge that saved Christians can backslide for a time and reap temporary physical consequences of their sins—but they believe they can never truly fall away and lose salvation.
However, there are some very serious scriptural passages that say the exact opposite. Paul said he disciplined himself lest he “should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Some of the strongest warnings to true Christians are found in the book of Hebrews. The author (likely the apostle Paul) uses a large portion of the book to warn Christians about the danger of drifting away and neglecting their salvation (Hebrews 2:1, 3).
He warns that we can only stay in God’s house (or God’s family) “if we hold fast the confidence … of the hope firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:6, emphasis added throughout). Yes, the short two-letter word if completely disproves the doctrine of once saved, always saved. No matter how far along we are in our Christian journey, this if reminds us of the danger of turning our back on God. In fact, it shows up again in verse 14: “We have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.”
The book elaborates more on the specific danger: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (verse 12).
Later the author writes of the danger of falling back into sin and refusing to repent: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the power of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6).
The apostle Peter reinforced this warning in 2 Peter 2: “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of … Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them” (verses 20-21).
Instead of teaching that Christians have eternal security, the Bible warns that in some ways Christians are in even greater danger than non-Christians because their knowledge of God’s way makes them more responsible than those who are ignorant of it.Instead of teaching that Christians have eternal security, the Bible warns that in some ways Christians are in even greater danger than non-Christians because their knowledge of God’s way makes them more responsible than those who are ignorant of it.
The proper approach
The belief of once saved, always saved is unbiblical and leads people to an inaccurate view of God and themselves. God will not ultimately save a Christian who completely turns his or her back on Him. Christians are not assured that they will receive eternal life regardless of what they do after their conversion.
What Christians can have total assurance of is that “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
God will continue to do His part. He will continue working with us, forgiving us and helping us to become more like Him using the power of His Holy Spirit. But we must also do our part. The warnings in the scriptures quoted in this article should help Christians develop a healthy fear of the choice represented by that two-letter word:
God will continue working with us and give us eternal salvation if we fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith until our last dying breath (2 Timothy 4:7).