Popular Beliefs: “Once Saved, Always Saved”

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who hath given them unto me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

Christianity features many beliefs and practices that prove very popular. People hear about them frequently; their legitimacy is often taken for granted. The Scriptures commend and justify many such beliefs and practices, but we cannot assume that merely because a belief or practice is popular that it is authorized by and pleases God in Christ. We must test all the spirits (1 John 4:1); we must prove all things in Christ (Colossians 3:17).

A very popular belief among Evangelicals can be summarized as “once saved, always saved,” and is sometimes spoken of in terms of eternal security. According to this view once a person has obtained salvation in Christ there is no way in which that person can lose their salvation. This view is often defended by an appeal to John 10:27-29 or Romans 8:31-39; it is also often suggested that since we have done nothing to earn or obtain salvation, there is nothing we can do to lose salvation. Are these claims consistent with what is revealed in the New Testament? Do the Scriptures teach that once we are saved, we are always saved?

Christians can maintain confidence they are in Christ even though outside circumstances prove challenging. It would be easy for Christians to wonder if God had abandoned or forsaken them while they endured trial on the earth; Jesus and Paul seek to reassure Christians in such circumstances, for earthly authorities and spiritual powers of darkness need not triumph, and they cannot separate the Christian from the love of God in Christ Jesus (John 10:27-29, Romans 8:31-39).

Yet the New Testament does not extend this same confidence to those who persist or return to sin without repentance.

“Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?’
And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity'” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called To-day; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin: for we are become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end (Hebrews 3:12-14).

For as touching those who were once enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, and then fell away, it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame (Hebrews 6:4-6).

For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries. A man that hath set at nought Moses’ law dieth without compassion on the word of two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, think ye, shall he be judged worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
For we know him that said, “Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense.”
And again, “The Lord shall judge his people.”
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them. It has happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:20-22).

These passages, in no uncertain terms, warn the Christian that the one who persists in sin without repentance will not be saved but will have fallen away. Many may seek to claim that such people were never saved, and might appeal to 1 John 2:18-20; Jesus spoke of the great deeds done and even spiritual gifts manifest by such people, the Hebrews author declared they were sanctified by Jesus’ blood of the covenant, and Peter considered them as having escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of Jesus (Matthew 7:22, Hebrews 10:29, 2 Peter 2:20). If it is true that such people were never actually saved, then none of us can have any real confidence that we are saved! And yet the Hebrews author, Peter, and John have greater confidence in the standing of such Christians before God as would be demanded by this understanding (Hebrews 6:9-12, 1 Peter 1:3-9, 1 John 2:1-6). Many may attempt to protest, and suggest that such people are still saved but have lost their testimony, or are saved but will not enter heaven; in so doing they would render “salvation” meaningless. If one can be saved without entering heaven, what hope can we maintain? From what are we “saved,” and to what end?

The doctrine of “once saved, always saved” is highly dependent on other doctrines. It originates in the Calvinist concept of “perseverance of the saints,” which logically follows from the four other points in the TULIP system. If a person is so sinful they cannot in any way turn to God (T – total depravity), and God has specifically chosen some for salvation and others for condemnation (U – unconditional election), then the blood of Christ is only effective for those who will be saved (L – limited atonement), God will inexorably call the saved (I – irresistible grace), and those who are saved will be saved no matter what (P – perseverance of the saints). Nevertheless, the full Calvinist TULIP system, while internally and logically coherent, is not consistent with what God has revealed in Scripture about the nature of election, predestination, or salvation. Those who adhere to “once saved, always saved” would agree, since many in Evangelicalism have jettisoned limited atonement and many elements of unconditional election and irresistible grace while still attempting to insist on total depravity and perseverance of the saints.

And so, if the other doctrines on which “once saved, always saved” depends prove inconsistent with Scripture, then “once saved, always saved” itself falls apart as a consequence. The Scriptures do not teach total depravity, unconditional election, or irresistible grace; they are extremist positions not consistent with the words or behavior of God or Jesus. Even sinners love sinners and do good to those who do good to them (Matthew 5:46-47); we may not earn salvation by works, but we must prove obedient in our faith if we will be saved (Romans 1:5, 6:1-23, James 2:14-26, 1 John 2:3-6); condemnation in Scripture is based on works, not God’s sovereign choice (Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9); God is love, and love, by its very nature, does not coerce or compel (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 1 John 4:8).

If we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, endure to the end, and do the commandments of Jesus if we would be saved, then it cannot be true that we cannot do or neglect anything so as to lose our salvation (Matthew 10:22, Philippians 2:12, 1 John 2:3-6). Jesus and Paul powerfully affirm that no external force can separate us from the love of God, but they nowhere suggest that we ourselves cannot decide to turn away from the salvation offered to us and fall from grace. If God is love, why would we expect Him to force a person who rejected Him to be saved and enter into His glory?

“Once saved, always saved” is a doctrine derived from the ideas of men and is not rooted in what God has revealed through Jesus Christ. While “once saved, always saved” distorts what God has promised believers, its opposite, “if saved, barely saved,” would put far too much emphasis on our obedience and works as they relate to our standing in Christ. The Christian is not to be lulled into a sense of complacency, believing their salvation secure no matter what they do; and yet to live in a constant state of fear and paralysis, constantly doubting one’s salvation, is no better.

Both extremes fail to grapple with our salvation in Christ as based in relationship. In Christ God seeks to reconcile the world to Himself (Romans 5:6-11); we are to become one with God and each other as God is One in Himself (John 17:20-23). Relationships are based in love and trust: we know the love God has for us in Christ, and He has demonstrated His faithfulness over and over again (John 3:16, 1 Peter 1:3-9). We love, trust, and obey in relationship; the relationship is damaged but not obliterated when we transgress God’s standard, and we are called to confess that wrong, ask for forgiveness, and maintain confidence we have received it (1 John 1:8-10). God recognizes our limitations and weaknesses; that is why provision for forgiveness is given (1 John 2:1). But if we turn away from the relationship and reject God in Christ, we will suffer the consequences of separation from God for eternity; God will not force us back into relationship if we reject Him by word and/or deed (Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Christians can outrage the Spirit of grace and profane the covenant by which we have been sanctified; Christians can turn back and no longer follow the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless, let us determine never to do so, but seek the way of God in Christ to obtain the resurrection of life and obtain the glory the Father seeks to give us on the final day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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