The question of whether or not a true believer can lose his salvation after having been justified by faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ has existed within the church almost from its inception. In fact, during the persecution of the early church in the second and third centuries, many individuals who were facing the prospect of torment and even death chose to renounce their faith in order to avoid suffering a painful and often lethal punishment. Later, when the Roman Empire began to ease its oppression of Christianity, some of the same individuals who had renounced their faith in Christ wanted to be accepted back into their local churches. While some believed that those who had repudiated their faith were still true believers, others held to the idea that these individuals were previously saved but were no longer saved because they had denied their faith. This, in part, led to a further question: “If Christians sin after their conversion, can they lose their salvation?”
This is not simply an “intellectual” issue for the theologians to debate. The question of the eternal security of the believer has profound and practical implications in the life of everyone who claims to be a Christian. Why is this issue so important?
1. This issue is important because of the vast number of professing Christians who embrace the belief that a true Christian can lose his salvation. Most mainline Protestant denominations espouse this view as do many Pentecostal and charismatic groups and even some evangelical denominations and associations. Individuals often accept this view simply because that is what they have been taught; they themselves have never actually taken the time to carefully search the Scriptures. Others who have studied the Bible and come to this conclusion are failing to see the clear teaching of God and, instead, are relying upon the more obscure passages to confirm their belief. Harry A. Ironside addressed this issue well when he said, “If you have a clear, definite, positive Scripture, do not allow some passage that is perplexing, that is difficult of interpretation, that seems somewhat ambiguous, to keep you from believing the positive statement ‘He that believeth hath everlasting life’” (Harry Ironside, The Eternal Security of the Believer. New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, no date, 20).
2. This issue is important because the very doctrine of salvation is at stake. In whom or in what is one trusting for salvation? If a person believes he can become a child of God through faith in the person and work of Christ and then lose that relationship with God due to a particular sin or by renouncing his faith, then the very basis of his relationship with God rests in himself—his actions—rather than in what Christ has done for him. If one does not accept the eternal security of the believer, then he has concluded that his own works are an integral part of his salvation or lack thereof.
3. This issue is important because the character of God is at stake. What one believes about the security of the believer determines what one believes about God’s very nature and character. Is God strong enough to keep a believer saved? Is the salvation God provided through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross sufficient to save eternally? Is God’s love for a Christian conditional on one’s actions or works? Will God “give up” on a believer because he has sinned through his outward actions or inward thoughts? The answers to these questions lie at the very heart of who God is. Coming to a false conclusion regarding the security of the believer indirectly causes one to question the credibility of Jesus Christ who so often explicitly stated in the Gospel of John that He came to earth to do the will of the Father so that man might have eternal, everlasting life based upon His [Jesus Christ’s] sacrificial work upon the cross.
4. This issue is important because, closely related to the character of God, the credibility of the Bible—God’s very Word to mankind—is at stake. If God declares that He gives “everlasting” or “eternal” life to a Christian, then does He really do so? If God declares that He seals the believer with the Holy Spirit until the day of redemption, does He really mean it? Does God’s Word to man stand true, regardless of one’s actions or circumstances?
5. This issue is important because one’s walk and one’s witness before others are affected. If a person believes he can lose his salvation, how can he be certain that he is truly saved at any point in time? What sins may he have committed that might have separated him from Christ without his knowledge? Anyone who believes he can lose his salvation and gain it again at a later time has removed himself from a belief in salvation by grace through faith alone and has concluded that his own works are an integral part of his salvation or lack thereof. Therefore, it stands to reason that one’s confidence in Christian living and Christian witness are affected.
These two interpretations—the belief that one can lose his salvation and the belief that one is eternally secure—cannot both be correct, and Bible-believing Christians affirm that God’s Word does not contradict itself. Therefore, one interpretation must necessarily be incorrect due to a faulty exegesis of Scripture, and the other must be correct because it is what the Scripture actually teaches. The question one must ask when studying the doctrine of the security of the believer, then, is, “What does God’s Word clearly teach, and how can one properly harmonize the more obscure passages that seem to contradict the more clear passages?”
God truly wants His children to know that they are safe and secure in Him. First John 5:13 says, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life….” The context of this verse reveals that salvation produces fruit, but fruit is a result of salvation, not a part of it. Yes, God wants His children to know that they are eternally secure. And, this security rests not upon man’s works or lack thereof, but upon all three members of the triune Godhead. God does not desire for any of His children to be confused as to whether or not they belong to Him one day but are bound for the lake of fire the next day.
The Work of God the Father Keeps Us Secure
Romans 8:28-30—Some authors refer to this portion of Scripture as God’s “golden chain of redemption.” According to verse 28, those who believe possess two positive characteristics: They “love God,” and they “are the called according to His purpose.” The two subsequent verses (vv. 29-30) describe the plan of God in the lives of those individuals who believe. Notice this “chain of redemption”: God foreknew, God predestinated, God called, God justified, and God glorified. Nowhere in these verses does God give the possibility that He will not fulfill one of the five “links” in the chain. Nowhere does He mention that the chain can be broken due to a sin committed by the believer. In fact, he emphatically states that he has “glorified” the believer. This is written in the past tense and gives the impression that although the believer has not officially been glorified yet, it is just as though it has already been accomplished in God’s sight. If God justifies a believer, and the believer then loses his salvation because of a sin he commits, then God could not glorify him; however, this scenario is completely contrary to what God’s Word teaches. God will glorify those whom He has justified, and glorification comes at Christ’s return. According to this text, it is impossible for one who is justified not to become glorified. While various degrees of holiness (personal sanctification) exist among believers, all believers (the “justified”) will be glorified.
Philippians 1:6—The apostle Paul is certainly confident of a “very thing” in this verse. The “very thing” of which he is so confident is that God is the One who began the good work in the believer as well as the One who promises to perform (complete) it until the day of Jesus Christ. This verse leaves no room for the possibility that one can lose his salvation, for if that were so, then the believer would not be confident of his salvation nor would God actually finish what He has begun in the believer. Never does the Bible say that God might not finish His work if the believer stumbles and falls in his Christian walk and witness; on the contrary, Paul wants the believers to be “confident” that God will finish His work in them.
First Peter 1:3-5—These verses contain a number of important words that further support the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer and the role that God the Father plays in this security. Verse five says, “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” This is referring to the believer who was “begotten … unto a lively hope” (v. 3). This believer is kept by the power of God. Because God is all-powerful, it is impossible for the believer to be “un-kept” or to become lost from the grasp of God’s hand. Verse four describes the believer’s “lively (living) hope”; clearly, if the believer has the ability to lose his salvation, then he has no “hope” or confidence in the first place.
John 10:27-29—These three verses are perhaps the most frequently used verses to support the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer, and they actually refer to the role that both God the Father and God the Son have in keeping believers secure. Four times in this text Jesus gives the idea that His sheep will never be lost: 1. I give unto them eternal life (v. 28). 2. They shall never perish (v. 28). 3. Neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand (v. 28). 4. No man is able to pluck them out of My Father’s hand (v. 29). These unmistakable references to the eternal security of the sheep cannot be ignored or explained away. When Jesus Christ says that no man can pluck them out of His hand and that no man is able to pluck them out of His Father’s hand and that He and His Father are one (v. 30), He is making the strongest possible statement that could ever be made concerning the security of the sheep. The context of this passage makes it clear that those who genuinely believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are the sheep. Verse 26 informs the reader that the Pharisees were not the sheep because they “believe not.” The sheep to which Jesus refers are those who trust in Him. They became sheep by believing, not by performing any particular work of their own accord. When Christ says “no man” can cause a believer to lose his salvation, He includes every man, even the believer himself. A child of God is powerless to “pluck” himself out of his Father’s almighty hand.
The Work of God the Son Keeps Us Secure
Romans 6:23—The word gift is key in this verse. This gift that has been provided by God is “eternal life through Jesus Christ.” This salvation was provided through Jesus Christ, not through any work or merit of man, and that is precisely what makes this a gift of God. Those who believe they can lose their salvation after they have been truly saved are placing their faith in their works plus their faith. But the gift, the free gift given by God, leaves no room for works but only for faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The last sentence in Revelation 22:17 further supports the idea that God’s gift of eternal life is, in fact, free; it says, “And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” This invitation of salvation expressly states that whoever hears the gospel message may respond to it by partaking of “the water of life freely.” No works are involved, nor is any mention made of the possibility of having to pay for the gift at a later time. Ephesians 2:8-9 also clearly states that salvation is a free gift that is not obtained by fulfilling any works but by placing one’s faith in Christ. Notice the apostle Paul’s use of the past tense in the opening verses of Ephesians 2: He told the Ephesian Christians that they “weredead in trespasses and sins” (v. 1), that “in time past [they] walked according to the course of this world” (v. 2), that “in times past” they lived according to the lust of the flesh (v. 3), and, again, that they “were dead in sins” (v. 5). But then notice that once they were “quickened” (meaning, “made alive,” v. 5), now they are “raised … up together, and made … [to] sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). First, it is clear that their walk prior to salvation was far different from their life subsequent to salvation. Following their salvation, they produced fruit in their lives and turned from their wicked ways. Second, these Ephesian believers were raised up and made to sit in heavenly places “in Christ Jesus.” Salvation, Paul says, is the free gift of God given to the one who has believing faith in Christ, not to the one who does or does not perform certain works. If the latter were the case, then men would have cause to boast in their own works. But God’s free gift is “not of works, lest any man should boast” (v. 9).
Hebrews 7:25—This text not only tells the believer that he is secure once he is saved (saved “to the uttermost”), but it also tells him how he is actually kept secure (by the intercession of Jesus Christ). The believer is secure because of the intercession made on his behalf by Jesus Christ, who “continueth ever [and] hath an unchangeable priesthood” (v. 24). Because Jesus arose from the dead, showing that His perfect sacrifice was acceptable in the sight of the Father, Christ can intercede on the believer’s behalf when he sins. The fact that this intercession is continual because Christ “ever liveth” to make intercession for the believer shows that although the Christian will sin and displease the Father, Jesus Christ pleads his case before God. First John 2:1-2 clearly teaches that the child of God will, in fact, sin after he has believed, but because Jesus Christ is the “Advocate with the Father” and the “propitiation for our sins,” the believer can rest assured that his salvation is secure in Christ and that he is forgiven in the sight of the Father. These two verses show that Christ is not only the Advocate but was also the bearer of the deserved punishment so that the individual who has sinned will not have to pay the damnable price himself. The result of Jesus’ intercession is that the Father will hear the advocacy of the Son and forgive the wayward saint because the Son was the perfect, acceptable sacrifice for all mankind; He paid the price on the cross “once for all” (Heb. 7:27; 1 Jn. 2:2). Romans 8:34 is a similar portion (situated in the context of other verses which speak of the eternal security of the believer) that describes the present work of Jesus Christ. It gives even more information than Hebrews 7:25, for it says that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us. The Christian can know he is eternally secure in Christ because Jesus’ perfect work on the cross makes Him the perfect intercessor on the believer’s behalf. At this very moment Christ is sitting at the right hand of the Father in His glorious presence intervening on our behalf!
Romans 8:38-39—Like the John 10 text, this passage of Scripture describes the role that both God the Father and the Son play in the security of the believer. These two verses are the answer to the question stated in verse 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” This text explains that nothing imaginable can separate a true Christian from the love of Christ. In all, the apostle Paul lists seventeen things in verses 35, 38, and 39 that cannot separate the believer from the love of His Lord. Those seventeen things are all-encompassing. One cannot get more secure than this!
The Work of God the Holy Spirit Keeps Us Secure
Ephesians 4:30—This verse specifically tells the believer that he is not to “grieve” the Holy Spirit of God, for it is by this Holy Spirit that the believer is “sealed” unto the day of redemption. It is important also to notice 2 Corinthians 5:5, which states that God Himself gives us the seal of His Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the guarantee of the believer’s salvation, and God is the One who gives that seal. God the Father declares the believer to be “not guilty” because of the finished, perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross; therefore, His seal is permanent and sure and cannot be removed. Notice that the believer is sealed, or kept secure, until “the day of redemption” when Christ returns and the believer is glorified, forever to be with his Lord in glory. Some claim that the “eternal life” promised to the believer refers only to the eternal state. However, this verse makes it clear that there is nothing any believer can do on this earth—from the moment of salvation to the day of redemption—to break God’s seal of the Holy Spirit. Paul states that it is possible for a Christian to “grieve” the Holy Spirit of God by his actions, but nowhere does he mention that these actions can break the seal, which is securely in place until the redemption of the body. The context of this verse makes it clear that the believer is to “put off” or “put away” sins such as anger, lying, stealing, and corrupt communication, all of which grieve the Holy Spirit of God who indwells the believer. However, Paul never says that the Holy Spirit will leave the believer who commits such sins. On the contrary, Paul exhorts the Ephesian believers to “put off” the old things and “put on” the new things because the Holy Spirit indwells the believer until the day of redemption. According to Strong’s Concise Dictionary of Words in the Greek/New Testament, the word sealed in this verse means “to stamp for security or preservation.” Once again the triunity of God is revealed in the believer’s eternal security, for it is the Father who preserves and secures His own by means of the unbreakable seal of the Holy Spirit based upon the perfect work of the Son.
Ephesians 1:11-14—The seal (Holy Spirit) is our guarantee of future inheritance. This fact, once again, leaves no room for loss of salvation. When someone makes a large purchase such as a house, often a down payment is required in order to secure the item. Believers are the “purchased possession” (v. 14) of the Lord, “purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). The moment one trusts Jesus Christ as Savior, he becomes a child of God who will one day receive an “inheritance” at Christ’s coming (“the day of redemption” v. 14 cf. 4:30). The “earnest” (v. 14), or “down payment,” of that promised inheritance is the Holy Spirit who seals the believer “until the redemption” (vv. 13-14).
God makes it clear in His Word that the wayward saint (the genuine believer who sins) faces His chastening hand (Heb. 12:6-11) and will lose reward one day (2 Cor. 5:10). He also says that many who profess to serve Christ do not truly believe in the first place but are deceiving themselves and others (Matt. 7:21-23). A true believer will show fruit in his life by walking according to God’s Word and, rather than continuing indefinitely in sin, will demonstrate a genuine attitude of repentance and sorrow when he wanders from fellowship with God (1 Jn. 1:6-2:3).
The Bible also makes it abundantly clear that the believer possesses eternal life based on the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, not on the work of the individual believer. Those who choose to believe that a Christian can lose his salvation usually base their belief on the assumption that the saint will live recklessly and unrighteously if he does not face the risk of losing his salvation. While this may seem to be a logical human notion, it is taught nowhere in Scripture. In fact, it would seem reasonable that if a believer could lose his salvation after he has genuinely believed, then God’s Word would give a wealth of specific information regarding what it would take to forfeit salvation and what it would take to turn again to God since the Bible repeatedly states that God wants the believer to be assured of salvation and to know his standing before Him (Jn. 8:32; 10:14, 38; 14:17-20; 17:3; 21:24; Eph. 1:17-18; 1 Jn. 5:13). However, God’s Word does not contain this information and, to the contrary, assures the believer that he is eternally secure in Christ the moment he places his faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the payment for the penalty of his sin. The child of God is safe, secure, and sealed because of the glorious work of the triune God.
— By Matt Costella. Reproduced from Foundation magazine, Volume 35, Issue 1.