FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 2
Can I lose my salvation?
This is a controversial question in Christian circles. It would be difficult to find a subject about which believers are more deeply divided. To the question, “Can I lose my salvation?” there are whole denominations that answer yes: the Methodists, the Wesleyans, the Pentecostals, the Church of Christ, and (in a different sense) the Roman Catholic Church. To varying degrees, and in varying ways, people in these churches argue that under some circumstances a genuine Christian may lose his salvation and be denied entrance into heaven.
On the other side are the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and all of the Reformed churches. They insist that a true believer may sin and sin terribly but that in the end all who are truly saved will finally enter heaven. This doctrine goes by several terms:
• eternal security,
• once saved, always saved, and
• perseverance of the saints.
Part of the problem people feel with this doctrine is the declaration that true Christians inevitably go to heaven. It’s difficult for us who live in a very uncertain world to believe that anyone can be that certain of heaven. How can you be sure? Does this teaching not invite pride and even possible spiritual laziness? Is not this doctrine damnable (as some have suggested) because it encourages believers to sin since they have nothing to lose? These are fair questions that I will try to address in this chapter.
There are two main reasons why some people think you can lose your salvation. First, they point to certain Scripture passages that contain severe warnings of judgment to Christians. Second, they also point to professing Christians who fall away from their faith or turn from holiness to live in continued sin. If we are honest, we must admit that this is a serious problem in every congregation. All of us know cases of apparently born-again believers who either drifted away from the church or fell into outright sin. Some repent and return, but others do not. What shall we say about them? Have they lost their salvation? Did they ever have it in the first place?
The eternal security debate is of supreme importance because it leads directly to the whole question of Christian assurance. Can Christians know with certainty that they are going to heaven when they die? Let me make that more precise. Is it possible to be 100 percent certain, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that no matter what happens to you in the future, you are going to heaven when you die? If you can lose your salvation—even theoretically—then the answer must be no. You can hope for heaven, you can believe in heaven, you can do your best to get there, but in the end you can never be sure. Jack Wyrtzen, founder of the great Word of Life ministry, used to say, “I’m as sure of heaven as if I’d already been there ten thousand years.” Can a Christian really say that? Or is it just wishful thinking?
Let me give you my own answer to the question, “Can I lose my salvation?” In my mind the answer is simple: It depends on who saved you.
• If God saved you, you can’t lose it because it depends on God.
• If you saved yourself, you can lose it because it depends on you.
Your salvation is eternally secure if God did the saving. But if you think that salvation is a cooperative venture between yourself and God—where you do a part and he does a part—then you’re in big trouble because anything you start, you could mess up somewhere along the way. But if God started it, he’ll also finish it.
Five Pillars of Biblical Truth
I am sure there are many ways of dealing with this question. For our purposes I’d like to share with you five pillars of biblical truth that lead me to believe that those whom God saves he saves forever.
Pillar #1: Salvation Is of the Lord (Jon. 2:9; Luke 3:6; Rev. 7:10)
This is the fundamental truth, the place where all our thinking must begin. When Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, he cried out, “Salvation comes from the LORD" (Jon. 2:9). Luke 3:6 speaks of “God’s salvation” and Revelation 7:10 tells us that “salvation belongs to our God” and to the Lamb. What does this mean? It means that salvation is a divine work of God. It is that act by which he rescues from sin all those who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. All three persons of the holy Trinity combine to procure salvation: God ordained it, the Son purchased it, the Holy Spirit applies it. We are chosen by God, called by the Holy Spirit, and saved by the blood of Jesus Christ.
It is precisely at this point that we must think very clearly. Many Christians believe that, although salvation is of the Lord, they have a part to play as well. They seem to think that salvation is 99 percent of God and maybe one percent dependent on what they do. It is not so. Even the faith to believe comes as a gift from God (Eph. 2:8). Even the power to choose the Lord must come from the Holy Spirit. Let us unite in saying that our salvation is God’s gracious gift that we receive through faith. It’s not that God has done the hard part and we must do the easy part; it’s that God has done every part and enabled us to receive what he has graciously given.
Pillar #2: What God Starts, He Finishes (Phil. 1:6; Rom. 8:29-30)
Philippians 1:6 assures us that the “good work” of salvation that God has begun in us will be completed until the day of Jesus Christ. When Paul says that he is “confident” of these things, he uses a very strong Greek word that really means “fully persuaded” or “absolutely certain.” It means to have no doubt whatsoever about the outcome.
But this makes sense when you understand that salvation is God’s work from start to finish. After all, all of us as humans leave some things undone in life. Just take a look in your closet or your drawer or your garage (or the files on your computer) and you will find ample evidence of unfinished business. We start our projects with great enthusiasm, only to lay them aside because of time pressure, conflicting commitments, financial difficulty, or other problems that confront us. Sometimes we come back and finish those projects later, but often years pass and the dreams of yesterday slowly fade into distant memories.
Not so with God. He finishes what he starts. When God determines to save a person, he saves him. Period. Consider the “golden chain” of salvation in Romans 8:29-30. Paul expresses the five links of the chain this way: foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified. The first two refer to God’s decision to save those who trust in Christ; the second two terms refer to God’s activity in actually saving those whom he has chosen. But the last phrase—"glorified"—refers to what happens when God’s children finally get to heaven. When we stand before the Lord in resurrection bodies, free from sin forever, we will be in a glorified state.
But how is it that Paul can express this truth about our future glorification in the past tense? The answer is simple. Paul says it in the past tense because it is so certain of fulfillment that it is as if it had already happened. You might say that with God the work is already done. Since he lives outside space and time, the past, present, and future are all the same to him. While we’re living on earth, from God’s point of view we’re already in heaven. From our point of view, that’s impossible, but from God’s standpoint our glorification in heaven is an accomplished fact. Thus we may be sure of our salvation because when God starts to save someone, he doesn’t give up halfway through the process. He saves that person completely and eternally.
Pillar #3: Eternal Life Begins the Moment You Believe (John 3:36; 5:24; 6:37-40; 10:27-28)
Sometimes we use the term eternal life to refer only to that which happens to us after we die. We think this life and eternal life never overlap. But the biblical concept is quite different. In the Bible, “eternal life” is nothing more or less than the life of God himself. Because he is eternal, the life he gives is eternal. And that life begins the moment a person believes. According to Jesus’ own words, a believer “has” eternal life as a present possession (John 3:36), he has “crossed over” from death to life (John 5:24), he cannot “perish” (John 3:16), he will never be driven away by Christ (John 6:37), Christ will lose none of those entrusted to his care (John 6:39), and no one in all creation will snatch a believer from the hand of Christ (John 10:28). It is hard to imagine how words could be any plainer to express the security of a true believer.
Think of it this way. If eternal life begins the moment you believe, and if it’s truly eternal, then how can you lose it? If you lose it, it’s not really eternal, but temporary. In that case, we should talk about “temporary life” instead of “eternal life.”
Pillar #4: Justification Secures Our Eternal Pardon (Rom. 8:33)
The word justify means “to declare righteous.” The term comes from the courtroom of the first century. As a trial drew to a close, the judge, having heard all the evidence, would pronounce his verdict. To justify a person meant to declare that he was not guilty in the eyes of the law.
There is another way to understand the term. If you have a computer, you probably know what it means to have justified margins. A “justified” margin is one that is absolutely straight from top to bottom. The computer arranges the words and spaces so that all the lines end up at exactly the same place. In that sense to justify means “to make straight that which would otherwise be crooked.”
Now take those two concepts and put them together. When you trust Jesus Christ as Savior, God declares you “not guilty” of sin and “straight” instead of “crooked” in his eyes. It is an act entirely of God performed by God on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross and is received by us through the instrumentality of faith. Nothing you do and nothing you ever could do contributes to your own justification. It is entirely an act of God on the sinner’s behalf. The crooked is declared to be straight and the guilty sinner is declared righteous in God’s eyes.
Let’s take that truth and apply it to Romans 8:33, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.” What if someone wants to accuse us before God? Can anyone bring a charge against us and make it stick? Satan comes and testifies against us in the court of heaven, “Get rid of him! He’s a bum! He’s a sinner! Did you see what he did? Did you hear what he said? Do you know where she went last night?” Who is there who can bring a charge that can stick in the ears of Almighty God? The answer is no one! Not even Satan. Why? Because it is God who justifies.
Who can bring a charge against the people of God? Shall the law bring a charge against us? No, because the law was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Shall the devil bring any charge against us? He can try> but it won’t work because he was defeated by the Lord Jesus Christ. Not anyone, not any angel, nor any demon, nor anyone in heaven or on earth or under the earth, or anybody we know could bring a charge against us in the ears of God. No one can say, “Oh God, you have chosen this person but she has disgraced you; you ought to get rid of her.”
It is God who justifies. That means the judge of the universe is on our side. There is no one who can bring a charge against you who will ever cause your salvation to be in jeopardy. God will not listen to that charge. For the sake of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, he has justified you. When God justifies you, you stay justified. When God says “not guilty,” nobody can ever condemn you nor can you ever be guilty again.
Pillar #5: Nothing Can Separate Us from the Love of Christ (Rom. 8:38-39)
This point comes from the magnificent closing verses of Romans 8 where Paul summons all creation to witness to the security of those whom God has called to salvation. The list would appear to be exhaustive:
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.
None of this—or all of this taken together—or any of it gathered in small parts—can separate the true believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Someone may ask if it is possible for a believer to take himself out of Gods grace. Upon first blush the answer would seem to be yes. You believed, so certainly you could “unbelieve” if you wanted to. And some people have apparently done that. They have recanted their Christianity and returned to their former beliefs or gone back into the world and followed the path of sinful excess.
Surely God would not continue to save such a person, would he? We can answer that in two ways.
First, in the great majority of such cases we may say with assurance that such persons were never true believers in the first place. Their faith was the profession of a religious person, not the saving faith the Bible talks about. They professed what they did not possess. Since they were never saved in the first place, they couldn’t lose what they never had.
Second, in the remaining minority of cases we may simply reply that God saves whom he desires to save. There may well be some people in heaven who truly believed but later recanted but were saved as a demonstration of the depth of God’s amazing grace. How can I say that? Because Romans 8:39 says that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We can’t even separate ourselves from that saving love! Are you part of God’s creation? If the answer is yes, then even you can’t “unsave” yourself. This is surely the most stupendous truth relating to eternal security.
Remember, we are all saved in the end in spite of ourselves and not because of anything we do. That’s why your salvation doesn’t rest on you; if it did, you would never go to heaven. And neither would I.
I can summarize everything I have said so far in three simple statements:
1. God has done everything necessary to make you eternally secure.
2. Eternal security is the reason you can know you are going to heaven when you die.
3. That is why Romans 8:1 says there is “no condemnation” to those who are in Christ Jesus.
I conclude from all this that it is impossible for a truly regenerated person—that is, a born-again Christian, one who has experienced God’s salvation—to ever lose his salvation. God has promised to save that person forever and to take him to heaven when he dies. And God always keeps his promises.
Four Categories of Problem Passages
Having presented the biblical truth regarding eternal security, it is important to balance it by considering the numerous problem passages often brought forward by those who believe you can lose your salvation. While I don’t have time or space to comment on each passage individually, I think it’s important to at least comment on the major categories. I find that the warning passages for the most part fall into one of four broad categories.
Passages Addressed to False Professors
Certain passages in the New Testament are warnings against false profession—that is, against religious activity without having Jesus in your heart. Such people might be very religious, but they are also very-lost. Matthew 7:21-23 comes to mind as a primary example. There Jesus warns against people who work miracles in his name yet on the day of judgment he will say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.” In all the New Testament, there is no better example of such a person than Judas. Although personally chosen by Christ and given the privilege of living with Christ for more than three years, he never committed himself to the Lord. As Acts 1:25 says, he went to “where he belongs” (that is, to hell) when he died because he was never a true believer in the first place. These warnings don’t touch the question of losing your salvation because they are addressed to those who were never saved to begin with.
Warnings Regarding Losing Your Eternal Reward
Other passages often mentioned touch on the issue of a true believer losing his eternal rewards in heaven through unfaithfulness as a Christian. First Corinthians 3:15 speaks of “escaping through the flames” (not a reference to hell but to the blazing gaze of Jesus), and 1 Corinthians 9:24—27 speaks of Paul’s buffeting of his own body lest he should become “disqualified"—that is, be removed from his ministry and lose God’s blessing through sin. Second John 8 and 1 John 2:28 also refer to the same possibility. Again, none of these warnings deal with losing your eternal salvation, but rather with the real possibility of losing your eternal rewards in heaven.
The Danger of Facing Physical Judgment and Death
A third category of problem passages deals with the possibility of Christians facing physical sickness and imminent death because of sin. First Corinthians 11:30 speaks of believers who were sick, weak, and in some cases prematurely dead because of misbehavior at the Lord’s Table. I would suggest that the “sin that leads to death” of 1 John 5:16-17, the exhortation to “save [a sinner] from death” in James 5:19-20, and the warnings of Hebrews 2, 6, 10, and 12 all fall into this general category. None of these passages warn against losing your salvation, but they do teach us that God takes seriously the sinful lifestyles of those who claim to be his children. When we get to heaven we will discover that some of us endured hardship, sickness, debilitating disease, and even premature death because of persistent unconfessed sin and willful disobedience to the Lord.
As Hebrews 12:4-11 teaches, God disciplines sinning believers. He “spanks” them—sometimes severely. Although we rarely hear about this today, the New Testament clearly warns that believers cannot sin with impunity.
Serious Calls to Holy Living
Finally, there are many passages that contain serious calls to holy living. Hebrews 12:14-15 says that without daily holiness no one will see the Lord. In one sense all believers are “holy” through our union with the holy Son of God, Jesus Christ. In another sense, holiness must be lived out on a daily basis as we seek the Lord in everything. When we do, we “see” the Lord—that is, we experience him in a deep and intimate way. When we choose to walk in the world, we miss that experience of God’s presence. In the same vein, Ephesians 4:30 challenges us not to “grieve” the Holy Spirit through anger, malice, and other sins of the heart. When we do, we miss God’s best for our lives.
Two Groups in View
Perhaps it would be good to offer some general comments on these various categories we have looked at briefly. First, not everyone is a Christian who claims to be a Christian. Second, how you live as a Christian matters to God. Third, there are present and future rewards for those who take their faith seriously. Fourth, there is present and future judgment for Christians who stray away from the Lord.
These problem passages basically have two groups in view:
Group 1: Those who are religious but not born again.
Group 2: True believers who fail to take their faith seriously.
Group 1 needs to be saved.
Group 2 needs revival, repentance, and restoration to God.
Group 1 needs to ask, “Am I truly born again?"
Group 2 needs to ask, “Am I walking with the Lord?"
Group 1 never had salvation.
Group 2 has taken it for granted.
But none of this touches the question of losing your salvation. The Bible never warns against losing your salvation because such a thing simply cannot happen.
A Roller-Coaster Christianity
The teaching that you can somehow lose your salvation carries with it several dangers. It may lead to excessive introspection, frustration, fear, and guilt. It strips you of any assurance of your salvation and may make you hypercritical of others whose faith you doubt. The Christian life can easily become an unstable roller coaster of up-and-down experiences. And worst of all, it takes the focus off Christ and places it on your own performance. In its extreme manifestation, it takes the “Good News” out of the gospel because you can’t be sure about where you stand with God.
By the same token, there are great benefits to teaching eternal security. It puts the focus of salvation where it ought to be—on God and not on us. It also provides a basis for personal assurance and gives real hope in the moment of death. It also gives us proper motivation to pray for sinning believers. When eternal security is properly taught, it leads to a Christian life built upon love and gratitude—not doubt and fear. And it ought to produce a life of love, faith, and obedience to God. Finally, it points us toward heaven and to our eternal rewards.
A salvation you could lose is not much of a salvation at all. You can’t be sure you have it, and if you have it today, you can’t be sure you’ll have it tomorrow. And if you lose it, you can’t be sure you’ll get it again. And if you get it again, you can’t be sure you’ll keep it the next time. What kind of salvation is that? It’s a man-centered salvation that makes heaven dependent on what you do. Remember what I said earlier: it all depends on who saves you. If you save yourself, or if you think salvation is a cooperative venture between you and God, then you can certainly lose it. Anything you do for yourself, you can lose for yourself. But if God saves you, you are saved forever because it depends on him and not on you. What God does, he does forever.
Three Truths about Our Salvation
In stating the matter so plainly, I am keenly aware that not every evangelical would agree with what I have said. Some of the most godly Christians I have known believe that it is possible to lose your salvation. They walk with Christ, they serve him wholeheartedly, they share the Good News with others, and they have personal assurance of their own salvation. Most of them don’t believe in the concept of being saved over and over and over again. They would agree that being saved over and over again produces a “roller-coaster Christianity.”
Most of them believe in what I would call “soft” security. That is, they are convinced that as long as you continue to believe in Jesus, you are eternally secure. In their minds, the only way to lose that salvation is to totally and willfully reject Jesus Christ and his work on the cross—that is, to become an apostate. Short of that extreme step, you can rest assured of your salvation. I call that “soft” security because many people who believe that would actually agree with most of what I have said in this chapter. They simply hold out the hypothetical possibility that salvation could be lost through deliberate personal rejection of Christ.
I wish to say that I have wonderful fellowship with believers who differ with me on this point. In my mind, it all goes back to the fundamental question: Who saved you? If God saved you, your salvation rests on him. If you somehow contribute to the faith part of your salvation, then possibly their view is correct. But the Bible clearly teaches that even the faith to believe is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Therefore, I respectfully disagree with my dear friends and insist that salvation is forever, and is not dependent on our belief or even on our continuing belief but solely on the grace of God at work in us.
I should add one final point. Is it really possible for a truly saved person to literally and actually give up his faith entirely? If Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-31 are describing born-again people, then the answer is yes. Such individuals have put themselves beyond all human help. They have “crossed the line” and cannot be renewed to repentance. Thus, they face judgment as they fall into the hands of a living God for severe judgment and the possibility of imminent physical death.
It is also possible that these verses describe individuals who were never truly born again in the first place. Such people have truly hardened their hearts against the God they claimed to know intimately. Because God will not be mocked, there is nothing left for them but judgment. Perhaps we are left with the practical reality that “only God knows for sure” in such cases. In any case, I do not believe that Hebrews 6 and 10 describe losing your salvation.
Surprised by the Grace of God
Here are three concluding truths to ponder:
1. Since salvation begins and ends with God, we are as secure as he is.
2. Since God cannot lie, we can trust him to save us eternally.
3. Since heaven will be so wonderful, we’ll never regret serving the Lord in this life.
There will be three surprises when we get to heaven. First, we’re going to be surprised that some people are there that we didn’t expect to see there. Second, we’re going to be surprised that some people aren’t there that we were sure were going to be there. Third, the greatest surprise of all will be that we ourselves are there.
We will be surprised by the grace of God! Heaven will be so much greater than we had imagined, and Christ himself so wonderful, that we will marvel that God would save people like us. The grace of God— which seems so great now—will seem much greater then. When we finally get to heaven, we will appreciate our salvation much more than we do now. In heaven we will see clearly why salvation is by God and God alone. Between now and then, we can rest in a salvation that depends on God and not on us and is therefore eternally secure.
A Truth to Remember:
God has done everything necessary to make you eternally secure.
1. Why is it important to understand that “salvation is of the Lord"? Do you agree that even the faith to believe in Christ is a gift of God?
2. Do you agree with the author that eternal security is a crucial doctrine for Christians to believe? Why or why not?
3. List three common objections to the doctrine of eternal security. How would you answer them? What important truths can be learned from studying those objections?
4. Do you agree with the author that when properly understood, this doctrine should promote holy living and deep gratitude to God? Why or why not?
5. Take a concordance and trace the words justify and justification through the New Testament. In simple terms, what does it mean to be justified? Why is this doctrine crucial to our understanding of eternal security?
6. In what way is salvation wrapped up in the character of God? What does it mean to say that “our salvation is as secure as he is"?
For seventeen years Sally was a loyal member of the Willow Bend Community Church. The two of you served together in a number of church organizations and committees. Ten months ago she abruptly resigned from all her duties and left the church. So far your efforts to talk to her have been politely rebuffed. She isn’t going to church anywhere and shows no spiritual interest. “I don’t know what I believe anymore,” she says. No one seems to understand what has happened in her life. Has she lost her salvation? Was she never really saved? Is she a believer out of fellowship with the Lord? How can you help her? Based on this chapter, how should you be praying for her? How might your view of eternal security impact the way you answer these questions?
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