Can a True Christian Lose His Salvation?
A. Passages cited by Arminians
Instructions: After looking at each passage, indicate Yes, No or Unsure. (If you’re in a group, poll everyone, and indicate the majority answer.) You may wish to jot down a key phrase from the passage to remind you what it says. Have people mark their Bibles and be ready to read each verse in the subsequent discussion with larger group.
Answers must be entirely based on these verses and their immediate context. Do not bring in any other passages to help you interpret these. Try to come to each passage with a blank slate—forget what you believe, what you’ve been taught, what your friends think, and what other passages say. Let this passage speak without diluting or qualifying it with others. (Of course ultimately you must compare Scripture with Scripture, but first let a passage speak for itself.) If this was the only passage of Scripture that existed, how would you answer the question, “Can a true Christian lose his Salvation?” *Note: All Scriptures below are from the New International Version (pub. 1984).
- Matthew 7:19-23 “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!'”
- Matthew 10:22 “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
- Matthew 24:9-13 “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.”
- Luke 12:46 “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.”
- Luke 13:6-9 “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.'”
- John 8:31-32 “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.’”
- John 15:1-6 “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.”
- Romans 11:20-22 “…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.”
- 1 Corinthians 9:27 “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.”
- Colossians 1:21-23 “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.”
- 1 Timothy 1:18-20 “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.”
- 1 Timothy 4:1 “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.”
- Hebrews 3:6 “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.”
- Hebrews 3:12-14 “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.”
- Hebrews 6:4-6 “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.”
- Hebrews 10:26-31 “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,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
- 2 Peter 2:20-21 “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.”
- 2 Peter 3:17 “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.”
- 1 John 2:24 “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.”
- Revelation 3:5 “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.”
- Revelation “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.”
B. Passages cited by Calvinists
Instructions: After looking at each passage, indicate Yes, No or Unsure. (If you’re in a group, poll everyone, and indicate the winning answer.) You may wish to jot down a key phrase from the passage to remind you what it says. Have people mark their Bibles and be ready to read each verse in the subsequent discussion with larger group.
Answers must be entirely based on these verses and their immediate context. Do not bring in any other passages to help you interpret these. Try to come to each passage with a blank slate-forget what you believe, what you’ve been taught, what your friends think, and what other passages say. Let this passage speak without diluting or qualifying it with others. (Of course ultimately you must compare Scripture with Scripture, but first let a passage speak for itself.) If this was the only passage of Scripture that existed, how would you answer the question, “Can a true Christian lose his Salvation?” *Note: All Scriptures below are from the New International Version (pub. 1984).
- Psalm 37:23-28 “If the Lord delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm; 24though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand… For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. They will be protected forever, but the offspring of the wicked will be cut off…”
- John 6:37-40 “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
- John 10:26-30 “…you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one.”
- John 14:16 “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—“
- Romans 6:3-5, 8 “Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection... Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
- Romans 8:28-39 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? 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. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither 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 14:4 “Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
- I Corinthians 1:7-9 “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”
- Ephesians 1:13-14 “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession–to the praise of his glory.”
- Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.”
- Ephesians 4:30 “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
- Hebrews 8:12 “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
- Hebrews 13:5-6 “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’”
- 1 Peter 1:3-5 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”
- 1 John 5:13 “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
- 1 John 5:18 “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.”
- Jude 24-25 “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.”
- John 3:14-16 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. "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 5:24 “I tell you the truth, 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.”
- Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
- Romans 8:1 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
- Romans 11:29 “…for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable.”
- Philippians 1:6 “…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
- 2 Timothy 1:9 “…who has saved us and called us to a holy life–not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time…”
- Hebrews 7:24-25 “…but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”
- Hebrews 9:11-12 “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.”
Summary and Conclusion from Randy Alcorn
- As the verses we’ve studied demonstrate, the biblical evidence is substantial for both the Arminian and Calvinist positions. John Wesley and Charles Finney were great men of God who took the Arminian position. John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon were great men of God who took the Calvinist position. It is not stupid or immoral or faithless to take either position.
- The biggest mistake in studying this issue is selecting those passages that most fit with what a person already believes. We should study the “whole counsel of God,” not ignoring or twisting or interpreting away those passages that challenge our position.
- Anecdotal evidence of human experience has little weight in determining this issue, since none of us can know for certain who was truly saved and when. For example, a man we know who professed Christ, who once went regularly to church and taught Sunday School, has lived in sin for twenty years. He dies today. Which position does this prove? None, since we don’t have a copy of the Book of Life in front of us. We don’t know whether he ever was a Christian, and we don’t know whether he’s now in Heaven or Hell. (Scripture gives us ground to speculate based on the fruit we saw, but we can’t be sure.)
Even biblical examples don’t prove one side or the other. Saul and Judas are often cited as proof that a saved person who can lose his salvation. Saul is problematic because the Holy Spirit was given and withdrawn from Old Testament saints, who weren’t permanently indwelt by the Sprit as in New Testaments times. Jesus said he had chosen Judas who was “a devil.” But does chosen to be an apostle mean chosen to eternal life? Judas’s apostasy proves nothing except that someone who on the outside is a disciple of Christ can turn his back on Him. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether that person was a true Christian in the first place.
- John 10:26-30 and Hebrews 6:4-6 are the two passages most frequently quoted by Calvinists and Arminians to prove their respective cases. Which passage is most clear and convincing?
In my opinion, there seems to be no interpretive possibility that John 10 does anything but clearly and emphatically teach true Christians can’t lose their salvation. Verse 28 in particular makes three statements which each seem unmistakable in their intent: “I give them eternal life” (what can be lost and ended cannot be eternal life); “and they shall never perish” (“shall not perish” would have been very strong; “shall never perish” leaves no room for ambiguity); “no one can snatch them out of my hand” (“no one” means no person, whether human or demonic; Jesus does not cite the person themselves as an exception, and since the Christian himself is a “one,” he does not have the ability to snatch himself out of the Father’s hand.) Jesus does not qualify the later statement by saying “of course he can always jump from the Father’s hand.” Such an understanding does violence to the context and apparent intent of Christ’s words. Any one of the three statements is strong, but cumulatively they are overwhelming.
If Hebrews 6:4-6 was the only passage on the subject, we would probably have to conclude Christians can lose their salvation. However, there is an interpretive possibility-even if it is not obvious-that it does not mean this, and may even fit with the notion that Christians cannot lose their salvation. It certainly has more interpretive wiggle room than John 10.
I think Hebrews 6 clearly refers to Christians (despite the argument of many that it doesn’t), but says it is impossible for a Christian to return to original repentance (in its context this is the meaning of repentance) and become born again again, for to do so would require Christ dying all over again. Why? Because his death was sufficient for original salvation and therefore to lose salvation and regain it would mean Christ’s death wasn’t enough the first time around and would have to be repeated. The author of Hebrews is arguing for the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive and high priestly work. Ironically, if this is the meaning, then the passage is not making the case that salvation can be lost but is assuming that it cannot be.
However, one thing is clear-if Hebrews 6:4-6 does mean a Christian can lose his salvation, then it must also mean thatno one who loses his salvation can ever regain it. Yet virtually no Arminians actually believe this. (If they did, they would have to say no one can come forward to receive Christ if they ever did before; “you have only one chance at salvation-lose it and it’s gone forever.”) The notion that salvation would be unavailable to some who seek it in Christ is entirely foreign to Scripture. How can the passage be interpreted to say Christians can lose their salvation without demanding it also teach they can never regain it? The interpreter can’t have it both ways. If he doesn’t hold to the second position, how can he hold to the first?
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Positions
- The Arminian position is correct in saying there are eternal consequences to our actions, that it matters how a person lives, that there should be fruit in a Christian’s life, and that it’s not enough just to have prayed a prayer, repeated some words from a booklet, or walked up an aisle.
It is incorrect in believing (whether or not this is stated and even if it is denied) salvation can be kept by doing good things or abstaining from bad things—for then salvation would be by human works, not God’s grace. If you can lose your salvation by bad beliefs and bad works, you can keep it by good beliefs and good works. The Arminian position fails to discern the difference between loss of salvation and loss of reward (1 Corinthians 3).
- The “eternal security” position is correct in saying that salvation is a work of God on our behalf, requiring only our trust in Christ, which itself is empowered by God and not the result of any virtue in us. Salvation does not requiring our good works in the past or the future or the present. If it did, the finished work of Christ would be insufficient, and the doctrine of depravity would be invalid.
The eternal security position is incorrect in implying that present behavior doesn’t matter and the only thing that’s really important is 1) whether or not a person ever made a profession of faith (“He came forward at camp as a ten year old and though he’s lived like an atheist he still must be saved”) and 2) whether or not he will end up in heaven. Scripture teaches that God is deeply concerned not simply about whether we end up in heaven but how we have served him since becoming Christians, and whether we have earned through those works eternal reward (1 Corinthians 3). The latter passage clarifies that Christians can “suffer loss” in eternity, but that this is not the loss of salvation but reward (“he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames,” 1 Cor. 3:15). However, it is wrong to conclude this is an insignificant loss and all that matters is whether a person is saved. No, for the saved person the loss of eternal rewards is a huge and significant loss, one which those holding to eternal security often ignore or underplay.
- The “perseverance of the saints” position recognizes the sufficiency of God’s saving grace, keeping the focus on Him not us. But it simultaneously recognizes the importance of believers bearing fruit, and the eternal consequences of how we live on earth after we’ve become saved (both as indications of our salvation and as basis for our eternal rewards). It has a theological consistency with major doctrines of Scripture, including the doctrines of grace and depravity, which make conversion a work of God.
Perseverance has some of the strengths of both the other positions, and avoids some of their weaknesses. More importantly, it is the position that can be supported by the most passages and apparently refuted by the least. (In fact, many of the passages cited as arguments against “eternal security” do not argue against the perseverance of the saints, and some of them actually argue for it.)
The doctrine of perseverance is taught and implied by many verses, including I John 2:19: ”They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”
Problems with the “lose your salvation” position
- If salvation can be lost, this requires a reversal of regeneration. This means the born again must become unborn again. And if they subsequently repent, then they must become born again again. Can a man also be born again again again? Where does it end? Is regeneration really so transient?
- If salvation can be lost, “eternal life” cannot be eternal life. It could only be temporary hope for eternal life that couldn’t become eternal life until after we die. As long as we’re still here, how can we call “eternal” what can be lost? Scripture says believers currently have eternal life, not that we might eventually have eternal life. It says that the life we have is eternal, not possibly or potentially eternal (or “to be determined” by whether we manage to keep or lose it). It says we can know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13). How can we know that if our salvation isn’t secure?
- If we can lose our salvation, we can also keep it—by abstaining from whatever it takes to lose it. This makes it at least partially dependent on our merits. This flies in the face of Scripture’s teaching that salvation is a miraculous work of God, dependent on Him, not us. If we can lose our salvation, how can we lose it? How can we keep it? What does our answer say about the nature of salvation and who it depends on? Is salvation a 50/50 proposition? Is it 10% us and 90% God? 10% God and 90% us? (Rewards are earned by our work for God, done in dependence on him, but salvation is not earned, it’s not a reward—it’s a gift, earned only by Christ, not us.)
- Question: If Judas had died soon after he followed Christ would he have gone to Heaven or Hell? If Peter had died soon after he denied Christ, would he have gone to Heaven or Hell? What do our answers suggest about what we really believe concerning the nature of salvation?