Are We ‘Once Saved Always Saved’?
The belief that those who have once been saved through faith in Christ will unconditionally be eternally saved is widely held. It is a comforting and reassuring teaching, based on a number of scriptures but the question needs to be asked: “Is it true to the whole of scripture?” This question is not a matter of mere theological debate but one that has life and death implications.
I believe Scripture and the Holy Spirit gives us every reason to be assured of eternal salvation but I also believe that Scripture teaches us someone cannot wilfully continue to sin and continue to have assurance.
Understandably, we might be unwilling to even consider the possibility that someone, once saved, could fail to be eternally saved. ‘Once saved, always saved’, as it is often termed, has been an integral part of the teaching of many churches since the Reformation five centuries ago. To question or deny this is, to some, tantamount to denying Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for our sins and implying salvation by works.
That we need faith to be saved is without question. But the Bible also teaches us that our works, that is what we do, will also determine our final destiny. The truth can be a narrow path between two valleys of error.
In one valley is the error of seeking to justify ourselves before God by works of righteousness as Paul makes this blunt warning to the Galatians:
You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4).
Should we endeavour to justify ourselves before God through works of righteousness we make void the grace of God in Christ. We can only be justified before God by His grace and through our faith in Christ. As Paul tells us:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).
However, justification through faith is not the only truth we need to consider.
The reformation re-established the truth of salvation by grace through faith. A great and enlightening truth this was, that liberated those who were in darkness and seeking to obtain salvation by works.
But like all of God’s revelation, it was a part, not the whole, an important truth, not the most important truth. There is a danger in making one truth the foundational or central truth. In reality it is Jesus Himself, who is the Truth, the Word of God, and the foundation. In the re-discovery of a truth we can, in our zeal, over emphasise this one truth to the neglect of others. So there is a particular danger that, in wanting to distance ourselves from anything that could be construed as salvation by works, we fall into the second valley of error: that it is unnecessary to live righteously to enter God’s kingdom. Yet scripture teaches us that entering God’s kingdom is also conditional on what we do:
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 (Matthew 7:21).
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10).
and there are many others such as Matthew 25:21 and 34, Mark 9:43-47 and Ephesians 5:5.
Good works cannot earn God’s grace but evil works will bring His judgement.
I believe the most important truth re-established during the Reformation was the supremacy of scripture over church authority and tradition. It is on the authority of scripture that every other truth is established.
We can, with not much difficulty, produce scriptures which support all manner of theological traditions, from universal salvation (which maintains God will, in the end, save everyone) to those who maintain only practising members of their church are the elect of God. Is it possible to judge who is right when two seemingly contradictory theologies claim to have scriptural authority? Theological tradition can therefore be a potential source of stumbling if it becomes our primary point of reference rather than God’s word.
Of one thing we can be certain: the Bible does not contradict itself, or else God becomes a liar. So even, if to us, there appears to be a contradiction then we ought to let it remain an apparent contradiction rather than force God’s words to harmonise with our understanding. For example, God’s predestination and man’s free will are often seen as contradictory doctrines and so one may be emphasised to the neglect or detriment of the other. Could it be that both are true? Human logic says ‘No’, but what is human logic to what God has plainly stated?
The ‘once saved always saved’ teaching is an inference based on but not explicitly stated in scripture. The problem, as I see it, is it does not impartially apply the whole of scripture and reads more into certain scriptures than is justified by the context. By giving greater emphasis or priority to certain scriptures rather than giving equal importance to all relevant scriptures, it creates a hierarchy in scripture and eventually causes scripture to be pitted against scripture. Consequently in such teaching the term ‘problem’ or ‘difficult’ scriptures is encountered.
This should serve as a warning to us. Once we perceive a ‘difficult’ or ‘problem’ passage in scripture the problem may in fact be our presuppositions, not scripture. Could it be that the difficulty is in fact applying what Scripture teaches rather than understanding it?
So I will present some of the scriptures upon which the ‘once saved always saved’ teaching is based and make some comments.
1. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My 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).
This is certainly a promise of great assurance to those who follow Jesus. He gives them eternal life, they never perish and no one is able to snatch them from His or the Father’s hand. However we need to see this is not an unconditional promise since Jesus says His sheep are those who hear His voice and follow Him, that is obey Him. The tense is present, that is, not that having once heard and followed but of continuing to hear and follow.
The term ‘sheep’ is a metaphor for those having the spiritual nature of willing obedience to Jesus’ commands. Nor should it be thought that ‘once a sheep, always a sheep’. Just as a sinner can become a saint through God’s grace, a saint can become a sinner through his own wilfulness. In the same way a ‘sheep’ can become a ‘goat’. So while we continue to hear, follow and obey Jesus we will be His sheep, have eternal life, never perish nor be snatched from His hand.
Similarly, in 2 Peter 2 we read about false teachers who are compared to dogs and sows. Some argue that God does not refer to His people as such and therefore this passage refers to those who were never saved. However, as ‘sheep’ is a metaphor for those who follow Christ, we should see that ‘dogs’ and ‘sows’ are metaphors for the fallen spiritual condition of these false teachers who go back into sin, not that they were never saved.
It should be noted that these teachers had at one time believed, for they were bought by Christ (that is, they were redeemed – see verse 1), they had escaped sin through the knowledge of Jesus and knew (not just heard) the way of righteousness. Their final condition is said to be worse than when they did not know Christ.
2. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.35-39).
Again, a passage of much assurance. No circumstance or power can separate us from the love of God. However note the context: it refers to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose (v 28). Those who love God are those who keep His commandments. This scripture does not say that nothing can separate us from God’s love, but no other created thing. That is, there is no power, circumstance or person outside ourselves that can separate us from the love of God. It is as we obey Jesus’ commandments that we remain in His love:
If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love (John 15:10).
However, sin will separate us from God unless we repent:
I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:3).
It is argued also that when Christ died on the cross He died for all our sins – past, present and future. This is true, but this does not mean we do not need to repent of them (1 John 1:9). Paul mourned for those who had sinned in the past and not repented. Why would he mourn if their initial repentance was sufficient to ensure their eternal salvation? (2 Corinthians 12:21).
3. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).
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 judgement, but has passed out of death into life (John 5:24).
It is held that one who believes has eternal life, that is, a present possession, and since it is eternal it cannot be lost. Two things need to be noted lest we assume this is an unconditional promise of eternal life. 1. The tense of believe is present, of continuing belief, not that of a single act or occasion. 2. Eternal life is not independent of Jesus. We must have the Son and remain in Him to continue having eternal life:
And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (1 John 5:11,12).
Eternal life is Christ’s life in us.
There are a number of scriptures which indicate that one can be brought to life in Christ and yet die, spiritually, again:
So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh- for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:12-13).
Living according to the flesh, as opposed to being led by the Spirit of God, will result in death. It cannot be referring to physical death since all (except those alive when Christ returns) will experience it. Paul warns the Galatians similarly:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7,8).
James similarly warned of the downward path beginning with desires within which lead to sin and sin finally to death (James 1:14-16). Jude also alluded to this when he spoke of those who were ‘twice dead’ (Jude 12).
John says a brother can sin to the point resulting in spiritual death:
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this (1 John 5:16).
As we saw earlier, eternal life is not something we have independent of Christ, but is in Him only. If, as Paul wrote to the Romans, we are cut off from Christ, we are cut off from His life. Eternal life then, is dependent on our continuing to believe and remain in Christ.
4. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37-40 ESV).
We have here the wonderful assurance of the Father and the Son working together for our eternal salvation. Yet we cannot come to Jesus unless the Father first draw us (v 44) and we cannot come to God unless we first believe He is and seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). As the Holy Spirit convicts us, God grants us repentance leading us to Christ for the forgiveness of our sins.
Those who come to Christ will not be turned away whether they have committed few or many sins. Nor is it God’s intention that any should be lost, but raised up on the last day. We see also in this passage the mystery of both God’s will (all the Father gives to Jesus) and man’s (everyone who believes) in operation. Our continued faith will assure our being raised by Jesus on the last day.
5. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7.25).
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Hebrews 10:14 ESV).
These verses give us the assurance Jesus is the final means of salvation. He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him. We have too the great assurance of Christ’s intercession for us. Jesus’ work for us is complete, but our faith and obedience are still necessary as explained previously. As the writer to the Hebrews informs us:
And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation (Hebrews 5:9)
Jesus, by His offering, His sacrifice, once for all time, has secured redemption, justification, sanctification, forgiveness of sins and peace with God for those who are being sanctified. However, if we wilfully continue to sin there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:26).
6. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
This verse is often understood to mean God, having begun His work of salvation in us, will ensure it will be completed on the day of Christ. That is we cannot depart from the faith, since God ensures we won’t. However, the context of this verse is the Philippians’ participation in the gospel (v 5). That is, the good work is their support for the defence and furthering of the gospel, not salvation.
7. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5).
A great promise of the inheritance prepared for us and God’s power to keep and protect us. As long as we continue in faith we are assured of this promise.
8. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29).
In context, this is referring to the promises God made to the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which Israel, the people inherited. God will not revoke the promise made to them.
9. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1.13,14).
God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is given as a seal of our redemption and future inheritance. ‘Sealed‘ needs to be understood as an authenticating sign of God’s work and ownership of us (as it is used elsewhere in the New Testament). However, the continued indwelling of the Holy Spirit is conditional on our continuing in faith and obedience:
And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him (Acts 5:32).
For it is possible to share in the gift of the Holy Spirit and yet fall away (Hebrews 6:4).
10. Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
A great assurance that God is with us through times of trial and provides for our needs. Though God promises not to desert us, we can desert Him through neglect or wilful sin.
11. 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).
A great promise of God’s sustaining power to us. However Jude says He is able, not He will (without any further condition). A simple distinction.
12. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the first born among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified (Romans 8:29-30).
How we understand this passage depends much on the word ‘predestined’. If we understand it to mean God causes certain people to be called, justified and glorified independent of their will, while others are decreed to destruction, also independent of their will, then we can be led to believe there is basis for unconditional eternal salvation. However this raises the question of God’s justice in predestining people to destruction. Nowhere in scripture do we read that God causes us to believe and obey or disbelieve and disobey Him. Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, consistently shows moral choices are our responsibility. So we should be cautious of going beyond what scripture actually says. Nor can we say we are known by God and continue in sin as Paul reminds Timothy:
Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness” (2 Timothy 2:19).
And as Paul says it those who love God who are known by Him:
But if anyone loves God, he is known by Him (1 Corinthians 8:3).
Who is predestined is God’s knowledge, not ours. What we do know though, it is God’s will that none perish, that all come to repentance, be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Hence predestination does not dispense of our responsibility to obey God.
God’s calling, justifying and glorifying us are by His power and grace. Yet His choice and our choice are two facts which need to be kept in balance. Throughout scripture our responsibility to make moral choices is plainly stated. As Peter says:
Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you (2 Peter 1:10,11).
If we are unconditionally, eternally secure, why would we be urged to make our calling and election certain? Our calling and choosing are made certain, as this scripture shows, is as we practice those things; upon faith we build moral excellence, perseverance, love, etc. (see v 5-7). In the book of Revelation we read it is the called and chosen and faithful who are with Christ (17:14). God calls and chooses, but we need to be faithful.
Vessels of Honour
Paul told us about God’s will towards honourable and common vessels and those of wrath and mercy. He says God endured with much patience those vessels prepared for destruction (Romans 9:21-23). So His wrath is not arbitrary, but gives all the opportunity to repent. We are all vessels, our bodies and minds, made in the image of God, but how these vessels are used also depends on our willingness to obey Him:
Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honour and some to dishonour. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honour, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work (2 Timothy 2:20,21).
So it is as we exercise our choice in cleansing ourselves of these things (sins) we are made vessels of honour for God. We choose whether to be a vessel of obedience or a vessel of disobedience.
In the garden of Gethsemane, God’s will and free will in the person of Jesus operated together. While God had pre-determined from the beginning what would happen, Jesus showed by submitting His will to the Father’s, the purpose of God would be fulfilled:
Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done (Luke 22:42).
So God’s choice and our freedom of choice operate together, even though we may not understand how. While we are on this Earth it may have to remain a mystery. What is certain though, we are free to choose, but the choice we make has eternal consequences.
13. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us (1 John 2.19).
Some understand this scripture to mean true Christians will remain and persevere. Those who leave the church and the Faith show they were not saved and true Christians in the first place. However the context indicates John is referring to ‘Antichrists’, that is substitute or false Christs. It is true that there has been and will be false brethren but Jesus said by their fruit we would know them.
14. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:15).
This verse is used to show that a Christian who goes on to live a sinful life can suffer loss of reward but still be finally saved. Yet the context shows that the work Paul is referring to is the work of service, spreading the gospel and building the church, not sin. It is the quality of the work that is being tested by fire (see v 13).
In this next section we look at some of the general arguments foundational to ‘once saved always saved’.
I understand there are two views of ‘once saved always saved’.
1. The first view says that once a person has expressed faith in Christ, they are saved and secure for all eternity regardless of their subsequent life and behaviour.
2. The second view holds that those who believed and were saved will persevere in holy living (and if need be with God’s discipline) and so be eternally saved. Those who don’t persevere in holy living show they did not truly believe and were not saved in the first place. This view may also include the possibility of some measure of backsliding with the result of loss of reward, but not eternal salvation.
Though differing in detail these two views have one idea in common: that once the Christian life has started, it will inevitably end in glory. Both views have the understanding or assumption, that salvation is complete once it has begun. Yet, as we saw earlier, though Israel was saved from Egypt, most did not enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief and disobedience.
The fate of those Israelites serves as an example and warning to us today. It is not a question of salvation being lost but rather whether it has been in vain if we also, like the Israelites, live in unbelief and disobedience. Salvation is not ‘lost’ but rather we can become disqualified (1 Cor 9:27) and not inherit God’s kingdom (see ‘We Are To Be Holy and Righteous’). The author of Hebrews warned that our great salvation can be neglected to the point of incurring God’s judgement (Hebrews 2:2-3). It is not a question of God’s grace being insufficient but rather whether His grace can be spurned or insulted (as the writer to the Hebrews warned).
The second view says those who truly believe and thereby been truly saved will inevitably persevere, but this is also not consistent with the whole of scripture since:
1. Scripture does not speak of true belief or faith but of the need to continue in faith. Jesus’ parable of the sower shows that it is possible to believe for a while but in a time of testing fall away (Luke 8:13).
2. This view puts all the responsibility of a believer’s persevering to God, whereas scripture contains numerous encouragements for us to persevere (Matthew 10:27 and 24:13), to be diligent, remain in Him, test ourselves, fight the good fight, hold fast, endure suffering, pursue peace, love, righteousness and holiness, discipline and purify ourselves, strive, labour and overcome. In other words God will not do for us what we should do ourselves (through the power of His Spirit in us).
3. Jesus said it is those who endure to the end, who finally persevere, who will be saved (Mark 13:13). Yet we always need to remember it is God who enables us to persevere. We merely trust and obey.
4. It places an undue emphasis on a past event when so much of Scripture urges us to keep the faith, persevere and look forward to the hope before us.
The terms salvation, justification, redemption, forgiveness, sanctification and entering God’s kingdom, though of course related, refer to different aspects of God’s salvation for us. Scripture consistently shows we are justified through faith and saved by grace but our inheritance in the kingdom of God is conditional on what we do. ‘Once saved, always saved’ is partially true in the sense that once we have been saved, we are saved, but scripture also tells us of salvation that is yet future:
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed (Romans 13:11 ESV) and
So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28 ESV).
So it remains for us to persevere in the faith and so inherit God’s kingdom.
The Carnal Christian
Another term encountered is ‘the carnal Christian’. The problem with the carnal Christian (who continues in sin but will, according to some, still enter God’s kingdom) is that while he has believed in Christ for forgiveness of his sins he has not believed Christ for his death to sin. A carnal Christian is in fact an immature Christian, a babe in Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:1) He may have been saved, but he is not safe if he wilfully continues in that state. ‘Once saved always saved’, while rightly emphasising forgiveness of sins in Christ, does not give due significance of our death to sin, also in Christ.
As pointed out earlier, the most serious problem with ‘once saved always saved’ is that it effectively weakens or even nullifies the fear of God. For if we think “I know this is not right but God will still finally save me” we are in effect putting God to the test. Jesus rebuked Satan for such a suggestion when He was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:5-7). It also weakens our spiritual armour, for we are told to ‘put on the breastplate of righteousness‘ (Ephesians 6:14). This is the righteousness we do, not to be confused with the righteousness of Christ which we receive through faith.
To assure someone that they are eternally secure even though we know they are practising sin is to deceive them. We should note well the words of the apostle John:
Make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil (1 John 3:7,8).
The fact many who believe ‘once saved always saved’ are holy and righteous people does negate these concerns. This is the fruit the Holy Spirit who dwells in them. However I suggest there will be a conflict between what the Holy Spirit says and what the mind believes.
It may be argued that those who have truly believed but backslide will be disciplined by God so they will learn to persevere. It may also be argued those who fall away or apostatise were never Christians in the first place. That may be true but then how can anyone have assurance? How do we know if we have ‘truly believed’? True belief and salvation will be shown by the fruit of the Spirit in our life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – fruit which remains (Galatians 5:22-23 and John 15:16). God’s discipline does not guarantee we will persevere, but only as we humble ourselves, submit to Him and produce the fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:5-11). Through God’s discipline the life of Christ is formed in us.
God’s promises and election of those who will inherit His kingdom must always be held together with the plain warnings of Scripture. Some have suggested these warnings are hypothetical but surely the plain meaning is that there is a consequence if they are not heeded. The wisest path therefore is to humbly take these warnings seriously.
Salvation is a journey which begins when we believe in Christ. It is a journey along a narrow, and at times, difficult path. By God’s grace and strength, through continued faith and endurance we will finally enter His kingdom and final rest and to Him will be the glory.