The doctrine of eternal security in theological language is referred to as the “perseverance of the saints.” In common expression it is referred to as “once saved, always saved” or “once a Christian, always a Christian.”
Many Scriptures give us an assurance that we have salvation now, even though we must await the resurrection to inherit, in finality, eternal life and the kingdom of God. Here are some of the phrases the New Testament uses:
- He who believes has eternal life (John 6:47)….
- Every one who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:40)….
- I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish: no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28)….
- There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans8:1)….
- Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to thelikeness of his Son (Romans 8:29)….
- [Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39)….
- [Christ] will keep you strong to the end (1 Corinthians 1:8)….
- God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear (1 Corinthian 10:13)….
- He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion (Philippians 1:6)….
- We have passed from death to life (1 John 3:14).
It is upon such assurances that the doctrine of eternal security is built. However, there is another side to the coin of salvation. There also appear to be warnings that Christians can fall from the grace of God.
Christians are warned, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Jesus said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Mark 14:38) and “the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12) The apostle Paul said some in the church had “shipwrecked their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19). The church at Ephesus was warned that Christ might remove its lampstand and he would vomit the lukewarm Laodiceans from his mouth. Most fearful is the admonition in Hebrews 10, verses 26-31:
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.”
There is also Hebrews 6:4-6 to think about:
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.
There is a duality, then, in the New Testament. Many verses are positive about the eternal salvation that we have in Christ. This salvation seems secure. But such verses are tempered by some warnings that appear to say Christians can lose their salvation through persistent unbelief.
Since the question of eternal security or whether Christians are safe—that is, when once saved, whether they are always saved—usually comes up because of such scriptures as Hebrews 10:26-31, let’s look at this passage in more detail. The question is how to interpret these verses. To whom is the writer talking, and what is the nature of the people’s “belief” and what have they accepted?
Let’s first look at what Hebrews as a whole tells us. The point of this book is the need for belief in Christ as the totally sufficient sacrifice for sins. There are no competitors. Faith must rest in him alone. The solution to the question of the possible loss of salvation generated by verse 26 lies in the last verse of the chapter: “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed [or, lost], but of those who believe [or, have faith] and are saved.” Some shrink back and are lost, but those who remain in Christ cannot be lost.
This same assurance to the faithful is also found in the verses prior to Hebrews 10:26. Christians have confidence to be in God’s presence by the blood of Jesus (verse 19). We can draw near to God with full assurance of faith (verse 22). The writer exhorts Christians with these words: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (verse 23).
One way to understand the verses in Hebrews 6 and 10 about “falling away” is to see the writer as giving his readers hypothetical scenarios to encourage them to remain steadfast in the faith. Let’s look at Hebrews 10:19-39, for example. The people to whom he is talking “have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place” through Christ (verse 19). They are able to “draw near to God” (verse 22). The writer sees these people as holding “unswervingly to the hope we profess” (23). He wants to spur them on to even greater love and faith (verse 24).
As part of his encouragement, he paints a picture of what could happen—hypothetically according to the above theory—to those who “deliberately keep on sinning” (verse 26). Nonetheless, the people he is addressing are people who “had received the light” and “stood their ground” during days of persecution (verses 32-33). They have their “confidence” in Christ, and the writer encourages them to persevere in the faith (verses 35-36). Finally, he says of the people to whom he is writing that “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (verse 39).
Notice, also, how the writer closes his warning about “falling away” in Hebrews 6:1-8. He says: “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (verses 9-10). The writer then goes on to tell them he has said these things so that they will show the “same diligence to the very end.”
Hypothetically, then, it is possible to speak of a situation in which a person who truly had faith in Christ could lose it. But if it were not possible, would the warning be appropriate or effective?
In the real world, can Christians lose their faith? Christians can “fall” in the sense of committing sins (1 John 1:8-2:2). They can become spiritually lazy in certain situations. But does this sometimes result in a final “falling away” for those who are truly in Christ? This is not wholly clear from Scripture. In fact, we might ask how one can “truly” be in Christ and yet be capable of simultaneously “falling away”?
The church’s position is that no one can snatch people out of Christ’s hand. If a person’s faith remains in Christ, he or she cannot be lost. As long as Christians hold fast to this confession of their hope, their salvation is safe.
The question about the “once saved, always saved” doctrine has to do with whether we can lose our faith in Christ. As mentioned earlier, the book of Hebrews seems to describe people who have at least an initial “faith” but who can be in danger of losing it. Yet, that proves the point made in the previous paragraph. The only way to lose salvation is to discard the only Way to salvation: faith in Jesus Christ.
The book of Hebrews is primarily about the sin of unbelief in God’s saving work, which he accomplished in Jesus Christ. (See, for example, Hebrews 1:2; 2:1-4; 3:12, 14, 3:19-4:3; 4:14.) Hebrews chapter 10 gets into the question dramatically with verse 19, stating that we have confidence and full assurance through Jesus Christ.
Verse 23 exhorts us to hold fast to our confession. We know this for certain: As long as we hold fast the confession of our hope, we are fully secure and cannot lose our salvation. This confession includes our faith in Christ’s atonement for our sins, our hope of new life in him and our continuing allegiance to him in this life.
Often, those who use the slogan “once saved always saved” are not clear about what they mean. The phrase does not mean that a person has been saved merely because he or she said few words about Christ. Human beings are saved when they have the Holy Spirit, having been born again to a new life in Christ. Real faith is evidenced by allegiance to Christ, and that means we no longer live for self, but for the Savior.
The bottom line is, we are safe in Christ as long as we continue to live in Jesus (Hebrews 10:19-23). We have full assurance of faith in him, because it is he who saves us. We don’t have to worry, “Am I going to make it?” In Christ we have assurance—we are his and are saved, and nothing can snatch us out of his hand.
The only way we could be lost is to spurn his blood, deciding we really don’t need him after all and that we are sufficient to ourselves. If we did that, we wouldn’t really care about being saved anyway. As long as we remain faithful in Christ, we have assurance that he will complete the work he has begun in us.
The comforting thing is: We do not have to worry about our salvation, saying, “What if I fail? What if I fail?” We have already failed. Jesus is the one who saves us, and he doesn’t fail. Can we fail to accept him? Yes, but if we are Spirit-led Christians we haven’t failed to accept him. Once we accept Jesus, the Holy Spirit lives in us, conforming us to his image. We have joy, not fear. We have peace, not anxiety.
When we believe in Jesus Christ, we stop worrying about whether we’ll “make it.” He “made it” for us. We rest in him. We quit worrying. We have faith and trust in him, not in ourselves. So the question of whether we can lose our salvation no longer bothers us. Why? Because we believe Jesus’ work on the cross and his resurrection is all we need.
God doesn’t need our perfection. We need his, and he has given it to us as his free gift through faith in Christ. We won’t fail, because our salvation doesn’t depend on us.
To summarize, the church believes that those who remain in Christ cannot be lost. They are “eternally secure.” But this depends on what people mean when they say “once saved, always saved.”
As far as the related doctrine of predestination is concerned, we can summarize the church’s position in a few words. We do not believe that God has decreed before all time who will and will not be lost. It is the church’s belief that God will make fair and just provision for people who did not receive the gospel in this life. Such people will be judged on the same basis as we are, that is, on whether they give their allegiance and faith to Jesus Christ.
Author: Paul Kroll