Many years ago, I attended a church which staunchly supported its denomination’s position that a person can lose his salvation. Up to that point in my Christian experience, I hadn’t given much thought to the matter, probably because the thought that a saved person could somehow become unsaved had never occurred to me. However, since all I have ever wanted to know is the truth, I decided to try and keep an open mind about it, at least until I could search the scriptures for myself.
As I started thinking about it, though, the idea of a person losing their Salvation began to seem like a very far-fetched and highly illogical one. I mean, if it was possible, at which point would that person cross the line? Would it happen after he had committed a certain number of sins, or, once he had committed a particular kind of sin? In other words, would it be the quantity or the quality of his transgressions—or, perhaps a combination of the two—that would push him out of the righteous camp and back into the camp of the wicked? And, if this could happen, just how was he to know if and when he had crossed over? Would an angel of doom suddenly appear on his doorstep with a message informing him of the transfer; or, would he come to know it as he found himself, going through life, with a dark cloud hanging over his head?
Of course, no one that I knew at the time had any answers to these questions—nor, could I find any in the Bible. And, that’s because, once I got around to checking out the verses usually used to support this theory, I found that, more often than not, they had been taken out of their immediate contexts, and out of the overall context of the Bible, as well. As examples of what I mean, here are some of the verses that I reviewed, along with a brief description of the contexts in which they are found. I will leave you to judge for yourselves whether or not they really support the position that a person can lose his or her Salvation.
The Verse: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. ‘Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
The Context: These verses come from the Sermon on the Mount, and were a warning from Jesus to His disciples to beware of false prophets; saying that the way that they would recognize them would be by their fruits. It would be to these false prophets that Jesus would one day say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
The Verse: “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
The Context: Here, Jesus is preparing to send out His twelve disciples to minister on their own, charging them to confine their ministry to Israel and not to take it to the gentiles. He warns them that, because of their association with Him, they will be persecuted and encourages them to stay strong through the opposition.
The Verse: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
The Context: In the Olivet Discourse, when the disciples asked when the temple would be destroyed, Jesus warned that it would be at a time of great tribulation, when many false Christs and false prophets would arise, and when they would experience intense persecution. The last statement in this verse was intended to encourage them to remain faithful through whatever challenges they may have to face.
The Verse: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.”
The Context: Jesus admonishes his disciples to be ready for His return at any time and uses a parable contrasting the reward waiting for a faithful servant and a faithless servant to make his point. In the parable, the faithful servant is the one who believes his master and behaves accordingly, while the unfaithful servant proves his unbelief through his mismanagement and abuse of others.
The Verse: “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
The Context: The fig tree in this parable speaks of Israel and of her failure to produce the fruit that she should have. This doesn’t have application to an individual’s salvation.
The Verse: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Context: This was directed to some Jews who professed belief in Jesus. But when He said this to them, they took issue with the part where He said they would be free. As descendants of Abraham, they claimed that they had never been enslaved, so they didn’t need to be set free of anything. In their response to Jesus’ statement, they revealed that they hadn’t come to faith at all.
The Verse: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
Context: In the last of His seven “I Am” statements, in His farewell discourse in the Upper Room, Jesus declares Himself to be the True Vine—in contrast to Israel. The implication is that those in Israel who do not come to true faith in Jesus will be cast away as unfruitful dead branches, while those who do come to faith will remain in Him and bear fruit.
The Verse: “But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”
Context: Once again, the branches referred to here are the Jews who, because of their unbelief, were cast off. Paul is admonishing the Gentile believers to not be arrogant toward the Jews because they had been grafted into the Vine. Instead, they are to be reverent and grateful for God’s kindness to them for, if He judged the unbelief of the Jews, He will also judge them for their pride and arrogance.
1 Corinthians 9:27
The Verse: “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
The Context: Paul uses the metaphor of an athlete training for a race to describe his approach to ministry. In the same way that an athlete endures the rigors of training so that he may run and win the race, Paul endures whatever hardships are required to carry out his ministry and win the lost to Christ.
The Verse: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”
The Context: To the Colossians who had become believers, Paul contrasts their conditions before salvation and after their salvation—reminding them that, because Christ has reconciled them to God in order to present them holy and blameless before Him, they should make every effort to remain steady and grounded in their faith.
The Verse: “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
Context: Here, Paul is encouraging Timothy to stay strong as a minister of the Gospel—unlike those who claim to represent Christ but who have proven to be false teachers. He identifies two who fit that description, saying that they had been put out of the church for that reason.
The Verse: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.”
The Context: This relates to the false teachers that Paul has been warning Timothy about—and, about how they will infiltrate the Church in an effort to lead true believers away from the faith.
The Verse: “But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.”
The Context: In this passage, the writer is contrasting Christ with Moses—with Christ as the Son over the household and Moses as the servant. He then contrasts the followers of Moses with the followers of Christ. Moses’ followers failed to enter into the rest of God through their unbelief, but the true followers of Christ will prove their belief as they hold on to their faith in the midst of struggle and persecution.
The Verse: “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.”
The Context: Again, recalling the unbelieving Jews in the wilderness, the writer admonishes those who hear the voice of God not to rebel and harden their hearts to the truth. Instead, they are to encourage and build up one another in the faith so that none of their hearts will become hardened by sin and unbelief.
The Verse: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”
The Context: This is probably the most problematic passage for those who question the eternal security of the believer. However, I think it will begin to make more sense when it is interpreted within the context of the book in which it is found. The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish believers who were either being threatened with or undergoing persecution for their faith; and, because of that, they were being tempted to return to the “safety” of their original Jewish faith and rituals. The imagery used here is of one who has come to the magnificent feast that is offered in Christ, only to return, in comparison, to the table scraps being offered by life under the Law. Having just made a case for the superiority of Christ over every aspect of the Jewish religious system, here the writer encourages those being tempted not to abandon the former in favor of the latter, as Judaism could offer them nothing in the way of salvation—only Christ can do that. In essence, the writer is saying that salvation through Christ is God’s Plan A—His only plan—and, since there is no Plan B, they need to stick with it.
The Verse: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The Context: Because Christ is the only way that anyone can be saved, for those who have heard the gospel of salvation through Him and rejected it—choosing instead to remain in their sinful conditions—there remains no other way for them to be saved. In their rejection, they have demeaned or “trampled underfoot” the sacrifice offered by the Son of God, so all they can expect is judgment and punishment as enemies of God.
2 Peter 2:20-22
The Verse: “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.”
The Context: The “they” here refers to false teachers who appear to have come to faith in Christ but haven’t really. It would have been better for them to not have made a show of knowing Christ because they will be judged all the more severely for their deception, and for their attempts to lead others from true faith.
2 Peter 3:17
The Verse: “Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.”
The Context: Peter warns that false teachers are twisting Paul’s teachings, and admonishes his readers not to be deceived by them—but to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ and in the knowledge of the Lord.
1 John 2:24
The Verse: “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.”
The Context: John’s readers had seen many leaving the church, so he tells them that their departures only indicated that they were not true believers to begin with. Warning that the devil is always at work trying to deny the Son, he encourages them to hold on to the faith that they had in the beginning.
The Verse: “He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.”
The Context: This is part of Christ’s letter to the church at Sardis, a church He described as being dead, despite its appearance of life. However, there still were a few in the church who were saved—ones whose names had been written in the Book of Life and would not be removed.
The Verse: “And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
The Context: Jesus, through John, warns that anyone who attempts to add to or take away from the inspired Word of God will be regarded as a false prophet and subject to death—the same fate as the false prophets in the OT.
Instead of focusing on the more negative aspects of the question, perhaps it would prove more helpful if we approach it by looking at it within the context of the overall Story of the Bible—a story driven by God’s desire and plan to create a family for Himself. As we have learned in our three previous exercises in Salvation, this family was to be one made up of men and women from every tribe and nation of the world, who had originally been born as slaves to sin and death, but whose freedom had been purchased for them by the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. Once forgiven and free, they were in a position to legally be adopted as the sons and daughters of God, and be placed into the family of God by the Holy Spirit—who would then begin the lifelong process of training these offspring of God to think, speak, and act like His children.
With this in mind, then, let’s now go to a passage of scripture which will provide us with a picture of the security that every believer, as a blood-bought child of God, should expect to experience. This passage is the Parable of the Prodigal Son and, while I cannot ever recall haven heard it used in support of a believer’s eternal security, I think it provides us with one of the best examples of it to be found in the Bible.
As one of the best known parables, it tells the very familiar story of a father and his two sons; with the younger son, itching to get out and experience what the world has to offer, choosing to rebel against the authority of his father, while the older son remains at home and obedient to it. In its original context, this parable was given, along with the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, in response to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ criticism of Jesus for His practice of associating with “tax collectors and sinners.” It was used in that context to illustrate God’s great passion for seeking and saving the lost; however, when viewed from the perspective of family dynamics, it provides us with the reassuring picture that, no matter how far away from God we stray, His love for us remains the same and our position in His family is never in jeopardy.
Here, then, is the story, taken from Luke 15:11ff…
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants. And he arose and came to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Now, let’s take a look at what this parable has to say in regard to eternal security…
- The younger son, in pursuit of a life in the world, willingly chose to separate and alienate himself from his father;
- Everything he did while in the world would have been reprehensible and an anathema to his father;
- Yet, when he was as far away from his father as he could possibly get, he came to himself and the first thing that he acknowledged was, that in spite of his own unworthiness, his father was still his father; then,
- When he repented and returned home, he discovered that to his father, the son was still his son.
In other words, the son’s sins did not, in any way, negate the Father-Son relationship—in fact, it remained intact the whole time that the son was living in the world. What they did do, though, was sever the fellowship between the two during the period of the son’s estrangement; and, ultimately, rob the son of the future rewards that his inheritance would have otherwise brought him. So, it wasn’t his position in the family which was lost—it was his fellowship with his father, as well as any future rewards for faithful service.
So, when we consider that…
- Every sin capable of being committed would have, at some time in the past, been committed by the men and women who eventually come to Christ for Salvation;
- Every imaginable sin was paid for and completely covered by Christ’s atoning work on the cross;
- When each of these men and women come to faith in Christ—that is, when they receive by faith His death as a substitutionary payment for their deaths–they are declared “Not Guilty” in the Court of Heaven, and immediately adopted into the family of God; and,
- Their adoption papers have been signed in the blood of Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and witnessed by God…
…is there anything that they can possibly do to undo their adoption, and cause them to lose their Salvation…especially in light of such promises as these from the Word of God?
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 3:16)
…whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)
…whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:28)
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
…you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13)
God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)
To him who is able to keep you from falling 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. (Jude 24-25)
I don’t think so, for…
The Pilgrim Mennonite Mission Choir reminds us that, whatever we may do, God’s “Grace is Greater Than Our Sin”…
The problem with both sides of this debate is they ask the wrong question: Can a person lose their salvation? It implies the answer is based on what a person does or to put it plainly: Can a person sin their way back out of grace.? Since a person’s salvation is never based on what they do, it cannot be undone by what they do.
Our salvation is based on faith alone – that is our only part in the translation from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Therefore the one and only way to forfeit one’s salvation is not through sins of commission or omission, but rather due to a reversal of saving faith (unbelief). This would be a clear renunciation of an earlier commitment of saving faith in God’s grace (Eph. 2:8-9). We all know of people who walked faithfully with the Lord for years, but ultimately turned away from Him in bitterness because of the loss of a loved one, embracing a false religion, etc. It’s far too convenient to simply declare they were “never saved in the first place” despite overwhelming evidence of a changed life and a prior genuine conversion experience. The truth is people do reject a prior act of grace or salvation not by what they do (sin), but through a denial of their previous faith in Jesus. This is the spiritual sin of apostasy and it has happened many times over the centuries of the church. When I ask the eternal security believers if someone can get to heaven without faith in Jesus as their Savior, of course they say “no”. But when I ask them about a person who walked with the Lord for years and then later renounced Him, not by what they do (sin), but what they believe, they will always fall back on “he must not have been a true Christian in the first place”. So they believe a person has free will to believe in Christ for salvation, but no longer possesses the free will to change their mind (belief) afterwards. I have believed in Christ as my Savior for many years, but I know I still have the free will to choose to believe/follow a different god or none at all.
In your article, I noticed you only listed one verse from the 7 letters to the churches of Rev. I encourage you to go back and notice how often three phrases appear: “hold fast” , “denied My name/faith” and “who overcomes” . Those three phases underscore all of my contention above. Only those who “hold fast” to their belief in refusing to “deny His name” by “overcoming” this world through their faith in Christ will inherit the wonderful promises of those redeemed by the blood of Christ. So although I agree with your answer to the question “Can a person lose their salvation due to sin?” (or some form of that question), I believe you and so many others involved in this debate are asking the wrong question (while disagreeing on the answer). Instead, I implore all of my dear brother and sister theological debaters to take heed to the statement Jesus issues at the end of each of those 7 letters to His church: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”.
Thank you, Pastor Smith, for taking the time to add such thoughtful and insightful comments to this discussion.