The question as to whether a Christian can lose his salvation is another one of those hard-core theological debates that gets thrashed around ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Positions are usually entrenched, the opposition view is often misrepresented, and heat rather than light far too often results.
As is so often the case, the debate is far more complex, detailed and nuanced than many folks realise. Which is why in part I tend to shy away from such debates. Not because I have nothing to say but because I realise a whole lot more needs to be said than what a short article allows for, if I want to do the topic justice.
So no matter what I now say on the matter, it will not suffice for many folks. Indeed, Christians on both sides will accuse me of rank heresy and being ensnared by the devil! Thus it may be foolish of me to wade into all this, but perhaps I can say a few brief introductory words nonetheless.
The phrase in my title is of course a rather unfortunate phrase, and it is mainly used by those who are critical of the concept of security of salvation. I don’t use it, and no, I am not a die-hard Calvinist either. I simply seek to take seriously the whole of the biblical witness. And as I have said so often, we must take seriously both the warning passages in Scripture as well as those that speak to God’s ability to keep those who are his.
I am not a fan of making airtight theological boxes to contain one’s pet theological position. Scripture can be at times a bit too sloppy for such hermetically sealed theological suitcases. Often we will have biblical socks and shirt sleeves hanging out of the case.
That is, no one theological system can do full justice to all of Scripture. Arminians will tend of course to emphasise those passages that speak of losing one’s salvation, while Calvinists will tend of course to emphasise those passages that speak of a believer’s eternal security.
The verses that seem to go against your preferred option are often just ignored or played down. It seems we should take them all seriously, whether or not we can turn all of it into a neat, tidy theological package. Better I think to live with a bit of tension here, and have a package that is not as precise and orderly as we might like.
And on this issue, both sides can appeal to heaps of passages. For every verse the Arminian can throw up about losing one’s salvation, the other side can throw up a verse about our security in Christ. The issue is how we interpret all these passages in light of the totality of Scripture.
So a list of some of the key passages does not take us all that far, but let me offer just some of each anyway. I do this in part because often it seems each side is not even aware that opposing texts are to be found on this!
-Psalm 37:23-24 The LORD makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand.
-John 3:16 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.
-John 6:37-40 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.
-John 10:28-29 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.
-Romans 8:38-39 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
-Ephesians 1:13-14 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
-Philippians 1:6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
-2 Timothy 1:12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.
-Hebrews 7:24-25 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
-Jude 1 Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, To those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
-Jude 24-25 To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
-1 Peter 1:3-5 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
-1 John 2:25 And this is what he promised us—eternal life.
Can fall away:
-Jeremiah 6:8 Take warning, Jerusalem, or I will turn away from you and make your land desolate so no one can live in it.
-Mark 4:16-17 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
-1 Corinthians 10:11-12 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
-Galatians 4:8-9 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
-2 Timothy 2:12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us;
-Hebrews 3:12-14 See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.
-Hebrews 12:16-17 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.
-I John 2:19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
-2 Peter 2:20-22 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. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.”
-Revelation 3:3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
Bear in mind that all these passages can be contested by those on the other side, and alternate interpretations of them can certainly be found. The important warning passages in Hebrews for example (Heb. 2:14; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:1-29), have been the subject of plenty of debate, with differing views as to how they are best understood.
And as mentioned, this is only a small part of the overall discussion. Bigger issues must be addressed as well, such as how we understand salvation itself. And then biblical terms that frighten some believers also really deserve a close inspection – terms such as election and predestination. But that is yet another bunch of articles!
One way to get a handle on this is to run with the customary way Protestants at least usually speak of salvation: it contains three aspects: justification, sanctification and glorification. The first one is the initial transaction whereby we are saved by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 for example speaks of this being God’s work.
But the entire reminder of your life as a believer involves sanctification. This is about becoming more and more Christlike, and less and less full of sin and self. It goes on till the day we die, and it is indeed a cooperative effort. God is certainly faithful to help bring this about, but we have hundreds of commands in the New Testament that we must obey to make it happen.
Thus we are to do plenty of things here: die to self, put off the old man, resist temptation, make no provision for the flesh, put on the new man, take up our cross daily, etc, etc. I have explained all this often. See for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/22/sanctification-cooperating-with-god/
The problem for some folks is that they will take justification alone, and think they are a Christian, while ignoring sanctification. But it just does not work that way. And this is where some careless Christians – or more likely those who may not be Christians at all – may want to sloppily toss around “once saved, always saved”.
That is, they think they can live like the devil, all because 25 years ago they put their hand up at an emotional gospel meeting. They think because they ‘made a decision’ for Christ way back then, that is all there is. But that is not how Scripture presents things.
So if a person is living a lie such as this, and throws that phrase at me, I will inform him that he is dead wrong. However, it is an altogether different matter if someone was justified and now cooperates with God on a daily basis to grow as a Christian, do what is right, and seek to move away from sin, self and the flesh.
They have an assurance of salvation, based on God’s word, that they are indeed God’s blood-bought people. They are not proud or presumptuous, and know it is God’s grace on a daily basis that keeps them on the right path. Sure, they may fall, they may sin at times, but they know it is wrong, don’t like it, repent of it, and seek to move on.
So if such a person in those circumstances uses the phrase in question, then I have no problem with it. They have a right biblical understanding and are not taking their faith cavalierly. They know that Paul insisted that we “work out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12) as part of the sanctification process.
And they are certainly aware of the many warning passages in Scripture, and do take them seriously, yet they believe God is at work in their life, and they are making slow but steady progress. And with that they have the assurance of salvation that some of the texts I listed above speak to.
It is at this place that a lot of confusion can arise. Those who rightly will want to stress God’s grace and his role in salvation will often turn purple whenever they hear the word “works” mentioned. As I said, as to justification, our works just will not cut it. But the ongoing process of salvation – sanctification – does indeed involve our works, rightly understood.
And we are not saying we are saved by good works, but that saving faith is evidenced by good works. This is a fairly common Protestant way of putting things. Paul and James are both right: a true saving faith will be witnessed in good works.
On this issue of properly trying to understand how works fit into these matters, let me finish with just a few representative quotes of many:
“Believers are required to do good works (Rom. 8:13). . . . But good works are impossible, apart from being in Christ (John 15:5).” Mark Jones
“We have been clear upon the fact that good works are not the cause of salvation; let us be equally clear upon the truth that they are the necessary fruit of it.” C. H. Spurgeon
“In respect to justification, grace stands opposed to works (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6). However, in respect to sanctification, grace is the source of works. This simply means that whereas we are saved by grace and not of works, we are saved by grace unto good works. Good works are the fruit, not the root, of God’s saving grace (see esp. Eph. 2:8 -10).” Sam Storms
“We do not seek to obey the Lord in order to obtain either his forgiveness or his covenant blessings. Rather, it is because we have already received these gifts by grace that we seek to show our love and gratitude in and through our obedience.” David Jackman
“We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works. Those different prepositions make all the difference in the world! Good works are the evidence of salvation, not the cause of it. If there are no works or change of life to follow salvation, then it should be questioned whether the person is truly saved.” Steven J. Cole
“Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify.” John Calvin
“In their zeal to eliminate good works as a requirement for salvation, some have gone to the extreme of arguing that good works are not even a valid evidence of salvation. They teach that a person may be genuinely saved yet never manifest the fruit of salvation—a changed life…. If a person is genuinely saved, his life will change for the better (2 Corinthians 5:17). He is saved ‘for good works’ (Ephesians 2:10), and there is no way he can fail to bring forth at least some of the fruit that characterizes the redeemed (cf. Matthew 7:17).” John MacArthur
These quotes seek to avoid two errors that often arise here: on the one hand, those who argue that works are needed to become a Christian, and on the other hand, those who say no works are needed in any sense. Both are extremes to be avoided here.
I still need to write many more articles on related matters such as the biblical view on assurance, how we are to understand the warning passages, what we are to make of things like having one’s name removed from the Book of Life, and so on. But this short piece may help at least set the stage for a bigger more proper debate, and hopefully clear away a few misconceptions and misunderstandings.
And I realise that some of you may have come to this article in the hopes of learning what my answer is to this question, only to feel let down that no such clear cut answer was forthcoming! As I say, I take to heart the various passages which speak to our assurance of salvation in Christ, but I also take seriously the many warning texts.
Future articles may make things a bit more clear, however, so stay tuned!