Can true Christians lose their salvation? In other words, can a person be truly saved and then truly lost later?
This question is, of course, very important but has been a controversial point throughout the ages. Many have believed and do believe that true Christians cannot lose their salvation while at the same time many have believed and do believe the opposite.
I believe the Bible to teach that a truly saved person cannot lose their salvation and assume that the vast majority of my readership agrees. However, if you believe it, can you defend it? Do you know why, based up the Word of God, you believe what you believe? If you do not, you should.
This precious doctrine goes by several names. Here at my church, we prefer to call it the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. Some would say that that phrase is too man-centered and prefer to call this doctrine the Preservation of the Saints. Still others like the term Eternal Security of the Believer. You’ll also run into many that summarize this doctrine by the name Once Saved, Always Saved.
Of course, each name nuances the doctrine a little bit differently. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you call the doctrine because it’s the content of the teaching that matters. Nevertheless, I try to avoid the title Once Saved, Always Saved because so many use it to deny the orthodox teaching of Lordship Salvation. Usually Once Saved, Always Saved is watered down to become “once you’ve spoken the words of the ‘sinner’s prayer’, you’re forever saved even if you never really follow Jesus.” This understanding falls way short of the Bible. Of the remaining three titles, I prefer Perseverance of the Saints because I believe it best captures the content of the doctrine.
So, what is the content of this doctrine?
Article 11 of the West Main Baptist Church Articles of Faith explains the doctrine this way: “Of the Perseverance of Saints, we believe that only real believers endure to the end, and that they are kept by the power of God through faith in Jesus Christ.”
If we look at the larger context of the Southern Baptist Convention, we see that the latest Baptist Faith & Message says it this way in article 5: “All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.”
So, we see that this doctrinal position has two parts to it: 1) The truly saved ones are those who persevere, or continue, in faith until they die; and 2) Those who believe have their faith preserved, or kept in existence, by God so that they will surely be saved.
First, does the Bible teach that the truly saved ones are those who persevere, or continue, in faith until they die?
I say that it indeed does and point to the following passages of Scripture:
- John 8:31-32, So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
- Only those who continue in Jesus’ word are truly saved.
- Matthew 10:22, You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.
- Enduring in faith until you die is essential to salvation.
- Colossians 1:22-23, Yet [Jesus] has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach— if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.
- You know that Jesus has brought you together with God if you continue in the faith until the end of your life.
- Hebrews 3:14, For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.
- Jesus is your Savior and Lord if you believe on Him until you die.
- 1 John 2:19, They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.
- Those that depart from the faith prove that they were never saved to begin with.
In light of the Scripture, faith that saves is faith that endures until death. It’s not just praying a prayer and then doing whatever you want with your life. Our assurance of salvation is not found in a prayer we once prayed or an aisle we once walked. It’s found in the reality that you still believe on Christ, that you hate your sin, and that you love Jesus. Saving faith is faith that causes you to follow Jesus for the rest of your life. It’s faith that bears the fruit of being saved. There’ll be spiritual growth and life in the person as they follow along. There’ll be a present love and devotion to God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the position that the truly saved ones are those who persevere, or continue, in faith until they die is thoroughly biblical.
But what about the second part of the position? Does the Bible teach that those who believe have their faith preserved, or kept in existence, by God so that they will surely be saved?
Again, I say that it indeed does and point to the following passages of Scripture:
- John 6:35-40, Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”
- Jesus will keep the one who comes to Him in faith until the last day.
- John 10:27-29, My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
- “No one” includes the person in the Father’s hand too. The believer has been given to Jesus, and again, He will protect them in faith.
- John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
- Eternal life is promised at the moment the person truly believes on Jesus.
- John 3:36, He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
- The implication here is that the wrath of God does not abide on the one who believes on Jesus. He has eternal life.
- Romans 8:1, Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- For the one who believes on Jesus, guilt before God has been erased.
- Romans 8:28-30, And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
- God set His love on (foreknew) those who believe on Christ and works in all aspects to deliver them safely to heaven. He predestined, called, justified, and glorified these individuals. If you are in Christ, the foreknowing, predestining, calling, and justifying are all past events. However, glorification is still a future event but is presented in this passage in the past tense because it’s guaranteed. If you believe on Christ, you’ll surely see heaven.
- Romans 8:31-39, What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.
- Since God is the one who saves us and keeps us, nothing can separate the believer from God.
- Ephesians 1:13-14, In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.
- When a person believes, they are sealed, or preserved, in Jesus.
- Philippians 1:6, 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.
- Our perseverance is based upon God’s faithfulness.
- 1 Peter 1:3-5, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
- The born-again believer has an inheritance in heaven that will not be lost because God protects it.
There you have it: the very basis of our salvation and our assurance of salvation is God. Those whom God saves, He lovingly keeps in the faith until the Day of Judgment. He will not cast them away. They will not lose the gift of salvation. Eternal life begins at repentance and faith and never ends because salvation from beginning to end is a work of God! Therefore, the position that those who believe have their faith preserved, or kept in existence, by God so that they will surely be saved is thoroughly biblical as well.
So, why do some believe that a person can be truly saved and then truly lost?
I believe they arrive at this wrong conclusion due to a combination of the following four reasons:
1) They observe that it looks like people get saved and then are lost later.
This reason is what I call theology by observation. They construct a doctrine based upon what they see. Some person walks the aisle, prays the prayer, gets in the water, and maybe even is faithful for a period of time, but eventually they walk away from the faith. They are found to be either explicitly faithless later on or at least functionally faithless in that their life bears no fruit of conversion. It looked like they were saved, but now it looks like they are not. While this sort of thing should break our hearts, we shouldn’t be surprised by it. Jesus told us through the parable of the four soils in Matthew 13:3-9 & Matthew 13:18-23 that there will be those individuals who seem to receive the gospel but turn away for various reasons. These people were not saved. They only seemed to be. We simply observed the outer motions of salvation. However, we cannot build our theology upon observation. Rather, it must be built upon revelation, the Word of God, which tells us that the truly saved ones are those that endure in the faith until the end and that those that are truly saved are assured of their salvation. We must stand on revelation and not observation.
2) They misunderstand two texts of Scripture.
Two texts of Scripture are usually used as the case closer for those who believe salvation can be truly gained and then truly lost. The first is Galatians 5:4, which says, You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. Many take this verse to teach a person can be saved and then lost (fall from grace), but that’s not supported by the context. Paul is saying that the only way you can be saved is by grace, and when a person moves to put their hope in something other than the work of Jesus Christ, they have fallen out of the scope of grace. Grace can’t help the self-righteous.
The other text is Hebrews 6:4-6, which says, 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, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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. Admittedly, this one is a tough text for the perseverance position, but in the end, Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture. Clear texts must interpret this unclear text. Therefore, I believe this text is talking about those who have been in close proximity to those who are truly saved. Perhaps these people have even exhibited much of the outward signs of salvation, but in the end they fall away, showing their conversion was false.
One other important note is that if this passage does indeed teach that a person can be truly saved and then truly lost, it also then teaches that once they have been truly saved and truly lost, they can never be saved again (fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance). Of course, those that teach that a person can lose their salvation believe that a man can be saved, then lost, then saved, then lost, then saved, and so on. That’s having your theological cake and eating it too. In other words, you can’t have it both ways.
3) They see God’s keeping us as a violation of “free will.”
The idea of God working to keep and to persevere a believer in the faith offends the sensibilities of those who believe that man possesses libertarian free will. They believe that it would be unloving and inappropriate for God to bring about not only the beginning of salvation but the ending as well. They see it as a human right of “free choice” to come to God at any time and walk away at any time. At least they are consistent. If it’s totally up to man to be saved, then it must be totally up to man to stay saved.
However, their understanding of free will is not biblical. Biblical free will is not the ability to act contrary to one’s nature, predisposition, and greatest desires. Rather, biblical free will is the ability to do what you want to do. This type is called compatibilist free will. Maybe you don’t see the difference, but it’s major.
The compatibilist understanding leaves room for the biblical categories of God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s responsibility in salvation to fully coexist. God saves and keeps nobody against their will. On the Day of Judgment, nobody will honestly say, “I wanted to walk away from God, but He wouldn’t let me.” Neither will there be anybody that honestly says, “I wanted to be saved, but God wouldn’t let me.” In the end, God chose to save and keep us, and we chose to be saved and kept. In other words, He works through our wills so that His purposes are brought to pass, but we still do what we want to do. Our wills are fully operational and never violated. So, God preserving us and keeping us saved is not a violation of our free will.
4) They believe in works righteousness.
Sadly, if I had to guess the primary reason why people believe that truly saved persons can lose their salvation, I would guess it’s because they believe that works plays a part in our salvation. They believe that a person is saved based upon what they have done along with what Jesus has done. In this way, they are very similar to the Judaizers Paul speaks against in the book of Galatians. They try to find their righteousness in the Law, which is the Bible’s “do this and don’t do that” statements.
Friend, our salvation is completely gained by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. It’s based on what He did. The Scripture is utterly clear in this regard, Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified, (Galatians 2:16). If we could make ourselves righteous, what did Jesus have to die for? The bottom line is that we cannot work righteousness. Therefore, we must believe on Christ in order to be saved, and when that happens, we get His righteousness, and He gets our sinfulness. Praise Jesus!
May we rejoice in the God who brings about salvation and secures salvation! Friend, persevere in the faith until the end, and praise God all the way for persevering you!