From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 21 – Assurance of salvation
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.1 John 5:13 (NASB)
27My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29My 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.John 10:27-29 (NASB)
The Spirit of God came upon Azari′ah the son of Oded, 2 and he went out to meet Asa, and said to him, “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you, while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.2 Chronicles 15:1-2 (RSV)
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.Hebrews 3:12 (NASB)
“These things I have spoken to you so that you may be kept from stumbling.John 16:1 (NASB)
for some have already turned aside to follow Satan.1 Timothy 5:15 (NASB)
In this chapter we shall examine a complex and controversial question. That is whether a real Christian can lose his salvation after he has been genuinely justified and forgiven. It is a question which is not capable of a short answer.
We are not discussing a false Christian who has never really repented or believed at all. Such a person has never been saved in the first place. So, he can not ‘lose’ his salvation because he had no salvation to begin with. We are discussing the position of a real Christian who has repented, believed, been baptised in water and even received the Holy Spirit. Can such a person “fall away” such that they cease to be a Christian? Is it possible for them to lose their forgiveness and justification and go to Hell and then the Lake of Fire when they die? That is the question and it is not an easy one to answer.
There are two main schools of thought about this and we will examine both:
A) People who emphasise assurance of salvation
This group tends to believe in the idea of “Once saved, always saved“. By that they mean that a person who has been genuinely saved cannot lose his forgiveness and justification, even if he later turns away from the faith, or acts in a way which is very wrong or sinful. There are many Bible passages which indicate that a person can have assurance of salvation and can be confident that they have eternal life. For example, consider the following series of verses:
The LORD redeems the soul of His servants,Psalm 34:22 (NASB)
And none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.John 5:24 (NASB)
39“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. 40“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.”John 6:39-40 (NASB)
33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:33-39 (NIV)
As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”Romans 10:11 (NIV)
19Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,20by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh,21and since we have a great priest over the house of God,22let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful;Hebrews 10:19-23 (NASB)
who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Corinthians 1:8 (NASB)
18The LORD is near to all who call upon Him,Psalm 145:18-19 (NASB)
To all who call upon Him in truth.
19He will fulfil the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them.
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.1 John 5:13 (NASB)
9But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. 10For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.Hebrews 6:9-10 (NASB)
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy,Jude 24 (NASB)
22so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. 23The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, 24but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. 25Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. 26For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; 27who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. 28For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.Hebrews 7:22-28 (NASB)
These “assurance passages” seem to be very clear and firm. Their meaning appears to be that if we are a genuine believer we are assured of going to Heaven when we die and of having eternal life. The question, therefore, is whether it is possible for such a genuine believer to stop being a believer. Before we seek to reach any conclusion about that, let us look at the other main school of thought:
B) People who emphasise the warnings in the Bible of the need to persevere to the end
This group tends to highlight those passages in the Bible which contain warnings about the need to persevere to the end. Those “warning passages” do appear to say that our salvation could be lost if we deny Jesus Christ, or turn away from Him, or commit serious sins. Consider the following passages very carefully Note that in the first passage, Jesus Himself is speaking:
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;John 8:31 (NASB)
Then the writer of the letter to the Hebrews also tells us that we need to “hold fast“…. “until the end“.
1Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession; 2He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house. 3For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honour than the house. 4For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.Hebrews 3:1-11 (NASB)
5Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; 6but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house–whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end. 7Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “today if you hear His voice, 8do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, 9where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw my works for forty years. 10“Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, ‘they always go astray in their heart, and they did not know My ways’; 11as I swore in my wrath, ‘they shall not enter My rest.'”
Then, having made the above points, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us in the next verse to “take care” not to have the kind of heart that “falls away” from God. His warning would surely be meaningless and absurd if it was not possible to fall away.
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living GodHebrews 3:12 (NASB)
Note that in verse 12 above, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is not speaking to unbelievers. He refers to his audience as “brethren“. That only makes sense if he already considers them to be genuine believers, at least at the moment. Yet, he still warns them of the danger of falling away. It cannot be that he is warning them of something that is purely hypothetical, and which could never happen to them. He warns them soberly against falling away because he views that as a real possibility, even for them.
Now look at how the writer to the Hebrews continues with his warning. He refers to the generation of Israelites who were rescued from Egypt but who went on to become ungrateful and unbelieving, despite all the miracles they had seen. Their attitude angered God, such that He did not let them enter the Promised Land:
13But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.14For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, 15while it is said, “today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked me.”16For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses?17And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient?19So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.Hebrews 3:13-19 (NASB)
So, the writer, to the Hebrews urges us to learn from their experience and not to behave as that generation did, with ingratitude and unbelief. Instead, we are urged to fear God and to avoid hardening our hearts:
1Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. 2For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. 3For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, “as I swore in My wrath, they shall not enter My rest,” although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “and God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; 5and again in this passage, “They shall not enter My rest.”Hebrews 4:1-13 (NASB)
6Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, 7He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”8For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. 9So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. 11Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
12For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
Those are very worrying verses, and should not be brushed aside or ignored. However, we do still need to hold them in balance with the more reassuring words which the writer to the Hebrews goes on to say next. He draws our attention to the fact that although we have to remain faithful to Jesus, He is ready and willing to help us to do so. He fully sympathises with us in our struggles and is able to give us His grace and mercy:
14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. 16Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.Hebrews 4:14-16 (NASB)
Now let’s look at what apostle Paul has to say on this theme of the need to continue in the faith. It too is sobering:
22yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach–23if 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.Colossians 1:22-23 (NASB)
Note how Paul emphasises above the need for us to “continue in the faith“. And he says “if“. He does not assume that this is automatic or that we will inevitably do so. When writing to Timothy, Paul is even more explicit:
1But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron,1 Timothy 4:1-2 (NASB)
Paul therefore advises Timothy to guard what he has:
20O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge”–21which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you.1 Timothy 6:20-21 (NASB)
Now see how Paul refers, in his letter to the Romans, to the nation of Israel. He describes them as an olive tree on which branches are grafted in, or broken off, depending on their own individual faithfulness:
17But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree,18do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.19You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”20Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith Do not be conceited, but fear;21for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either.22Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.Romans11:17-22 (NASB)
In this passage, apostle Paul is writing to the largely Gentile church in Rome. He says that that some of the Jewish people have been “broken off” for their unbelief, i.e. for not accepting their Messiah. Christians can, likewise, be cut off if they do not continue as they should.
Paul’s point is that the Jewish people are like a natural olive tree into which we Gentiles have been grafted. So, if even the natural olive branches, the Jews, can be broken off, then so can we be cut off. That is a clear and very disturbing warning to us.
Now consider what Peter says:
20If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.21It 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.2 Peter 2:20-21 (NIV)
In this passage Peter goes further. He says that we are actually worse off if we believe and then fall away then if we had never believed. But, when we were unbelievers we were on our way to the Lake of Fire. That must mean, therefore, that a believer who falls away is, likewise, heading for the Lake of Fire. What else can it mean?
If it means anything less than that, then Peter’s warning would be an inaccurate exaggeration. But we know that that cannot be the case. Therefore the possibility of our ‘turning our backs’ on God has to be taken seriously.
Now let’s consider some longer passages which give further warnings:
12“And you, son of man, say to your fellow citizens, ‘The righteousness of a righteous man will not deliver him in the day of his transgression, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he will not stumble because of it in the day when he turns from his wickedness; whereas a righteous man will not be able to live by his righteousness on the day when he commits sin.’ 13“When I say to the righteous he will surely live, and he so trusts in his righteousness that he commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered; but in that same iniquity of his which he has committed he will die.Ezekiel 33:12-20 (NASB)
14“But when I say to the wicked, ‘You will surely die,’ and he turns from his sin and practices justice and righteousness, 15if a wicked man restores a pledge, pays back what he has taken by robbery, walks by the statutes which ensure life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16“None of his sins that he has committed will be remembered against him. He has practiced justice and righteousness; he shall surely live.17“Yet your fellow citizens say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right,’ when it is their own way that is not right. 18“When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, then he shall die in it.19“But when the wicked turns from his wickedness and practices justice and righteousness, he will live by them. 20“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.”
In the passage above the prophet Ezekiel is saying that it is possible for a righteous man to change his path and become wicked. If he does then his previous righteous life will not be remembered. In other words, he will be condemned, despite having been righteous up to that point. There would be no point in Ezekiel giving such a warning if it could not occur.
Ezekiel also says that if a wicked man turns from his sin then, likewise, his past sinfulness will not be remembered against him either. It works both ways. But the operative point, for our purposes, is that it is possible for a righteous man to fall away.
Now let’s hear what Jesus says:
21“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)
In this grim passage Jesus Himself is directly warning us that on the Day of Judgment, many people will be told by Him that He never knew them. This verse would appear to refer to people who never were genuine Christians in the first place, because it says “I never knew you…“.
We can deduce from this therefore that, at the very least, there must be many people who assume that they are real Christians, but in fact they are not, and never were. That must be so, because Jesus says He never knew them. That is a very worrying thought in itself, in addition to the quite separate danger of a real Christian falling away after He has known them.
It means that many of us will, one day, be told that we never were real Christians in the first place. That is very disturbing, especially as it comes from Jesus’ own mouth. He is the One who will be judging us.
But, what about people who have been real Christians, at least for a time? Can such people fall away? If so, how does it occur? Let’s look again at one of the most well-known parables Jesus told. We have discussed it earlier in “Step 1 – Repent” (chapter 14) concerning repentance.