Once Saved Always Saved?
The Bible shows the “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and humanity is on a collision course with eternal death because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The awesome news of the gospel of Christ is that we can reconcile with our Creator, receive forgiveness for our sins and acquire eternal life! Even more, this redemption is free; it’s God’s gift to whoever will receive it (Romans 3:24 & 6:23)!
Of course people can’t receive a gift if they’re unaware of it, which is why spreading the news is so important, but even many of those who hear and understand the gospel reject it because they refuse to receive it based on God’s terms. What are these conditions? The apostle Paul said:
“I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He also said:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – (9) not by works, so that no one can boast.
And Jesus said:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
So reconciling with God and receiving eternal life are by God’s graciousness and are received through faith, which is belief. This makes sense since you can’t receive a gift if you don’t even believe the gift or giver exists!
As the first passage above shows, faith and repentance go hand-and-hand. Are faith and repentance “works”? No, because the second text plainly states that we cannot be saved through works. Both faith and repentance are spirit-inspired mindsets or attitudes that qualify people to receive the gift. Let me explain.
Understanding Faith (Belief)
Faith is a mindset of belief, but not in the sense of believing in fairy tales or casual mental assent; it’s belief based on (1.) what is intrinsically obvious, (2.) accurate knowledge, whether scientific, spiritual or otherwise, (3.) revelation by the Holy Spirit, or (4.) some combination of these three.
Consider these examples: Regarding #1, someone may say they believe in the concept of God as Creator because it’s obvious that the earth, universe and all living creatures were intelligently designed. Or someone may believe homosexuality is intrinsically wrong because the design and function of the sexual organs is obvious (tab ‘A’ fits into slot ‘B’). In each case the person believes based on what is clearly palpable. Concerning #2, people may believe they have a brain even though they’ve never seen it because medical science has proven it through dissecting human remains, brain surgery, etc. The person believes based on sound data. Regarding #3, some may turn to God because the Holy Spirit revealed reality to them and they believed it. Their belief is based on the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible calls faith the substance of things hoped for and being certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). For instance, in the Gospels people would come to Jesus hoping for healing and after receiving it the Lord would say something like “Your faith has healed you” (see, for example, Mark 5:25-34). Faith was the substance that brought them what they hoped for, healing. They were certain (convinced) that Jesus would heal them even though they couldn’t yet see it physically.
The Bible also says this about faith:
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
I trust you’re seeing why faith is necessary to receive God’s gracious gift of reconciliation and eternal life. After all, how can you receive a gift from someone you don’t even believe exists? For example, if you told me you had a gift for me and I responded by saying I can’t receive it because I don’t believe you exist, would you still force the gift on me? Of course not. More likely, you’d be irked at my stupidity and arrogance. The same principle applies to those who reject the gospel. When you come across people who do this be sure to pray that the LORD open their eyes to the truth, i.e. reality.
Did you ever wonder why faith is so important to receiving salvation? Because faith is nothing more or less than believing God. That’s precisely what Adam & Eve failed to do when they were tested in the Garden of Eden and that’s why they fell (see Genesis 2:15-3:24). In other words, the fall of humanity came about due to unbelief and therefore humanity’s restoration is dependent upon belief.
In a sense, every human soul has faith, which explains why we’re incurably religious as a species (even those who claim to not believe in God develop belief systems and institutions that have all the attributes of what is generally perceived as “religion”). Belief in God is simply a part of our make-up; it’s in our spiritual DNA. Heck, even creation itself inspires belief in God (see Psalm 19:1-4 & Romans 1:18-20). Unfortunately, as Paul put it, unbelievers “are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:18). In other words, they have faith but they’ve willingly hardened their hearts to it, consciously or subconsciously.
As Paul declared in Acts 20:21 above, we effectively “turn to God” via the gospel through repentance and faith. Faith naturally includes the attitude of repentance because if you truly believe in a Sovereign Creator you’ll automatically want to line up your life according to His will. In other words, if you truly believed He was your Almighty Designer then He’d obviously know what’s good for you and what’s not good for you and you’d follow suit.
‘Repentance’ inexplicably has a negative connotation in modern times because people misinterpret it to mean that God is trying to prevent them from having a “good time.” But sin can only bring a “good time” superficially because underneath the surface pleasure is misery and death for “the wages of sin is death.” This is an axiom.
Take, for instance, the “party” lifestyle. When I was a teen I smoked pot, did drugs and drank frequently. It became a lifestyle and it was difficult for me to imagine life without constant “partying.” After a number of years I wisely quit. This was before I even became a believer. In essence, I repented because repentance is the resolve to change for the positive. Why did I quit? Because, although doing these things delivered a quick fix to escape reality and have a “good time,” they couldn’t deliver the goods in the long term; instead they brought hangovers, depression, broken relationships and bondage.
Why did I change? Because I saw the obvious truth, believed it, and changed accordingly. The same principle applies to receiving God’s grace of salvation through the gospel of Christ. We see the truth, believe it, and change accordingly. You see, repentance is the resolve to change for the positive in accordance with God’s will. It literally means to change one’s mind, yet this doesn’t refer to a meaningless mental exercise, but rather a change of mind with the corresponding actions, like the revolve to fulfill God’s will (Acts 26:20) and turn from that which is opposed to God’s will, i.e. sin (Acts 8:22 & 2 Corinthians 12:21).
As noted above, repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin and hence go hand-in-hand (see Acts 20:21). For repentance to be effective it must be combined with faith. Is it any wonder that repentance and faith are the first two basic doctrines of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2)? Without faith, repentance is just a dead exercise. It is of the utmost importance to your spiritual health to grasp this.
But what is it about repentance and faith that impresses God and releases his grace to flow into people’s lives? We already addressed faith so let’s focus on repentance.
Humility Attracts God’s Grace
Repentance impresses God because it shows humility and humility naturally attracts God’s favor whereas arrogance repels him. As it is written:
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”
James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5
James and Peter were quoting Proverbs 3:34, so this isn’t just a New Testament principle, it’s a Biblical principle. The fact that this passage is quoted three times in the scriptures – once in the Old Testament and twice in the New – tells us that its message is important: God resists the stubborn and arrogant, but his favor flows to the humble. Get ahold of this.
Repentance parallels apologizing. Think about it. When people genuinely apologize they’re admitting they’re wrong and are resolving to change for the positive. A proud person can’t admit s/he is wrong because they’re too bullheaded and stubborn, only a humble person can. When someone repents he or she is showing humility and humility automatically attracts God’s grace, which is his favor.
So repentance and faith are not works, they’re attitudes that open the door for God to give us his free gift of redemption through Christ. Repentance signifies humility which attracts God’s grace and faith is the substance of things hoped for, in this case eternal salvation, for “without faith no one can please God.”
Once Saved Always Saved?
Once people are saved through repentance and faith is it ever possible for them to lose their salvation? Can a confessing believer live a lifestyle of sin for years or decades with no care of repentance and still seriously be saved? Since it takes faith to be a believer, can a person still be saved if they come to a point where they no longer believe?
These are heavy theological questions that have provoked much debate over the centuries. Thankfully, we don’t have to speculate because the Holy Scriptures clearly provide the answers. Jesus said God’s Word is “truth,” meaning reality, and it has the power to set us free (John 17:17 & 8:31-32). Adhering to the four principle rules of proper Bible interpretation (see this article for details), let’s find out what the Scriptures teach on this important subject. We’ll start with…
The Judgment Seat of Christ
Believers who turn to God in repentance and faith receive God’s grace, forgiveness and salvation, but even they will be held accountable for known sins of which they fail to repent. This accounting will take place at the judgment seat of Christ. Notice what Paul says about this judgment:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (11) Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.
2 Corinthians 5:10-11
The passage is addressing Christians and it clearly states that we’re going to be judged for things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Because of this, Paul says in verse 11 that he knew “what it is to fear the Lord.” Other translations put it this way: “knowing therefore the terror of the Lord.” Such a statement makes no sense if believers only had the possibility of receiving rewards at this judgment, which I heard taught from the pulpit of at least one church. The text is clear: We’re going to receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Concerning the bad, this can’t be referring to God judging us for sins we’ve repented of since God dismisses all such charges and cancels the punishment; that’s what forgiveness is. So the text can only be referring to sins not repented of, whether sins of commission or sins of omission. (Sins of commission are transgressions we enact, like stealing or fornication, whereas sins of omission are things we know we’re supposed to do but don’t. James put it this way: “Anyone, then who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” ~ James 4:17).
Struggling with Sin and Stumbling into Sin
What about the Christian who knowingly lives a lifestyle of sin and is unwilling to repent, year after year? I say ‘lifestyle’ because there’s a difference between a believer who struggles with sin and one who lives a lifestyle of sin, although the former can lead to the latter. The struggler hates the sin but is in bondage to some degree; he or she doesn’t want to do it but falls and repents again and again. Because such people sincerely and humbly repent God forgives them over and over. This is struggling with sin.
Yet even mature Christians who are freed up from life-dominating sins, like sexual immorality or substance abuse, are perfectly capable of missing it in less noticeable areas, such as arrogance, gossip, envy, legalism and rivalry. This isn’t struggling but rather stumbling. The fact that even mature believers can miss it now and then explains why John the Baptist instructed his hearers to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew & Luke 3:8). What did John mean by “keeping with repentance”? If we want to be close to God and effective in his service we have to be diligent to keep our spiritual arteries clear of the build-up of unconfessed sin. Why? Because it naturally blocks the flow of God’s grace. Needless to say, be quick to repent whenever you feel even a tinge of conviction. The blood of Christ has the awesome power to cleanse you from a guilty conscience and purify from all unrighteousness; it’ll make you “white as snow” (Hebrews 9:14, 10:22, 1 John 1:8-9 & Isaiah 1:18). This is a habit or lifestyle that every strong believer must develop. Just today I was convicted of a sin and immediately repented as the LORD directed me to Isaiah 55:7, promising his mercy and free pardon.
The Danger of an Unrepentant Lifestyle
Those who practice sin as a lifestyle, however, are neither struggling with sin nor stumbling; they’ve given their hearts over to the flesh and no longer have any concern about repenting. They’ve become calloused towards God’s will and the things of the Spirit. It’s the difference between struggling or stumbling and outright rebellion; the latter of which is tantamount to what the Bible calls falling away (Hebrews 6:4-9). This isn’t merely falling down, but falling away. Someone who stumbles can fall down if they’re not careful, but those who fall away have totally abandoned the road and have even set a whole new course! Such people are in danger of being cut off from salvation altogether if they choose to persist in their stubborn folly.
I realize this is an unpopular topic in light of the “once saved always saved” doctrine, but let’s observe a few sobering texts on the subject:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; (20) idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions (21) and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (26) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, (27) but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. (21) It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than to have known it and then turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.
2 Peter 2:20-21
All three passages clearly refer to believers, not unbelievers. In the Galatians text Paul is addressing the Galatian Christians when he states, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” He’s not referring to those who miss it and repent, he’s referring to those who live in the flesh with no care to change or repent.
The Hebrews passage starts off with an encouragement to the believers to not get in the habit of skipping church meetings. The writer even identifies himself as one of the believers in the opening statement: “Let us not give up meeting together.” In the next verse, verse 26, he’s still referring to himself and the believers he’s addressing: “If we keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth…” followed by a solemn warning of damnation. Again, he’s talking about believers, including himself, not unbelievers.
Lastly, the passage from 2 Peter also plainly concerns believers as it refers to people who have “escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Only spiritually born-again believers can be said to “know” the Lord. Peter goes on to point out that if these people fall back into the corruption of worldliness (i.e. fleshliness) they are “worse off” than they were before they knew the Lord. He even goes on to say that “it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than to have known it and turn their backs” (!!). These are some heavy statements so let’s take heed and be sure not to turn our backs on the Lord and “the way of righteousness.” Amen?
There are numerous other passages that support the three above. Here are some more for those who care to look into the issue further: Romans 11:19-24, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Hebrews 3:6, 3:12 & 6:4-6, James 5:19-20, Jude 5, Matthew 10:22, Luke 8:13 & 13:5-9 and John 15:1-6.
That said, let me emphasize that there’s no doubt to God’s great mercy and grace in such cases, particularly in light of Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard, but in view of such sobering passages why risk walking on thin ice by playing around with sin? Some are deceived into thinking they can flirt with the flesh – the deceptive beast within us all – but before they know it they become captive to it. This is the deceitfulness of sin noted in Hebrews 3:12-14. Sin has the power to harden a person’s heart to the point where s/he doesn’t want anything to do with God or the things of God. How so? Practice a carnal behavior long enough and there comes a point where character is firmly set and nigh incorrigible. Pathological liars are testimony to this. Let’s not end up like that!
What About “Once Saved Always Saved”?
Some may ask, what about the “once saved always saved” doctrine? This refers to the belief that it is impossible for legitimate Christians to ever lose their salvation. Those who adhere to this teaching maintain that, while fellowship with the Lord can be broken, relationship can never be broken. When confronted with genuine evidence of a former believer who has fallen away they argue that such a person was never really saved in the first place.
This teaching is true in one sense yet false in another. Jesus made this encouraging statement:
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (28) I give them eternal life and they can never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (29) My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. (30) I and the Father are one.”
The “once saved always saved” doctrine is true in the sense that no one can steal legitimate believers from their Father’s hand – no person, no circumstance, no devil, no demon. We have eternal life and we will never perish, that is, suffer the second death (Revelation 2:11). This is awesome! Yet, we must keep in mind the hermeneutical law that Scripture interprets Scripture. Consequently, this passage must be interpreted in a balanced manner, taking into consideration all the passages noted above, as well as this one:
Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; (12) if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; (13) if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
2 Timothy 2:11-13
Verse 13 is encouraging in that the Lord remains faithful even in light of our unfaithfulness; he won’t disown us. But verse 12 plainly declares that he will disown us if “we” disown him. This corresponds to Jesus’ statement: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).
A skeptic once asked: “Could God make a stone so big He couldn’t lift it?” The answer is yes, the human will. You see God has blessed humanity with the power of volition. No one can snatch us from our Father’s hand except we ourselves. We have a will and therefore have the liberty to choose. This is why the LORD made this statement to the ancient Israelites:
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life,”
Although God encouraged them to choose life he couldn’t make them do it. Why? Because they had freewill. Similarly, if we choose to disown the Lord there’s nothing the Lord can do. His hands are tied. He must always be faithful to his Word, and his Word clearly states that he will disown us if we disown him.
Of course some will argue that, technically speaking, God will only disown us if we disown him and, therefore, believers can live like Satan himself for decades with no care of repentance and not lose their salvation as long as they don’t literally disown him with their tongues. Frankly, this is playing games with God. Jesus Himself addressed this issue with the fake religious leaders of that day, the Pharisees and teachers of the law:
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’ ”
First, note that Jesus called these religionists “hypocrites,” which literally means ‘actors.’ In other words, although they were the learned religious leaders of Israel they were putting on an act, merely posturing. Everything they did and said was for show and not genuine. In short, they were fakes. Jesus followed this up by quoting Isaiah, pointing out that it’s possible for people to say one thing while the truth of the heart is quite the opposite. Paul backed this up in Titus 1:16 when he warned Titus of false believers, including staunch legalists: “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.”
Notice the solemn exhortation of the Word:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (8) The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the spirit, from the spirit will reap eternal life.
Galatians 6: 7-8
Those who rigidly advocate the “once saved always saved” doctrine argue that, if people fall away from the Lord, they were never really saved in the first place. They contend that such people merely dabbled in Christianity and their faith was never really sincere; consequently, any positive changes in their lifestyles were superficial, the result of practicing some Scriptural principles, but not actually knowing the Lord. Surely this is true, but the numerous passages above also show that Christians can abort their salvation if they choose to neglect their faith. After all, if it takes faith to be saved it naturally follows that people cannot be saved if they come to a point where they no longer have faith. That’s simple enough to understand, isn’t it? Let’s not make the issue more complicated than it is.
Suffice to say, don’t play foolish games with God. You can draw whatever conclusion on the matter that gives you peace and helps you sleep at night, just be careful not to play around with “the deceitfulness of sin” or encourage others to do so either. We’re all going to stand before the Lord and give an account one day.
The obvious weakness of the “once saved always saved” teaching is that it can create spiritual complacency, whereas the weakness of the opposite extreme – that believers can lose their salvation at any moment – creates anxiety. The sensible middle position is the biblical position: The believer’s salvation is secure as he or she walks in faith and trusts God’s Word, avoiding both complacency and insecurity. If you miss it, be quick to repent, and God will forgive you. Then keep moving forward knowing that “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18).
So the Bible teaches eternal security, but it clearly does not teach unconditional eternal security.
For more details, see the second part of this article Once Saved Always Saved? — Answering the Best Arguments.
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