Once Saved, Always Saved?
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith . . .
-- Hebrews 12:2a
This post is inspired by a reader's comment left on a previous post titled Grace and Faith, Law and Works. It is a bit of a theological rabbit chase, but I do think it's a valuable one, particularly as it relates to the work of salvation and to a Christian's assurance of salvation. (For a bit more background on where I'm coming from on the issue of assurance, you might want to check out the following posts: How Mustard Seeds Dislodge Mountains and Faith Wavers, Grace Sustains.)
The primary question before me right now is: Is the idea "once saved, always saved" a true one?
The short answer is Yes.
The long answer is "It depends."
Because I believe the work of salvation is done by Jesus, that it is accomplished in his sinless life, sacrificial death, and bodily resurrection, I have a hard time believing in any sort of tenuous salvation. I believe what Jesus did accomplished salvation, and because what he accomplished was effectual for the salvation of sinners, the sinners who are saved will stay saved.
In John 6:39, Jesus says, "This is the Father's will, that of all He has given me, I will lose none."
Typically what someone means when they ask the above question is this: "Do you believe someone can pray the so-called Sinner's Prayer and then go on doing whatever the heck they want for the rest of their life?"
The answer to that, for me, is No. And the reason is because someone who goes on living exactly as they had before the prayer has not really repented. This does not mean, of course, that every believer stops sinning. But it does mean they don't want to. It does mean they are truly attempting to follow Jesus. It does mean they are convicted and/or grieved over their sin. It does mean, at the very least, that they recognize their sin as sin, and as sin that offends God.
The sticky wicket here in this question is emphasizing the need for the life of discipleship as evidence of one's salvation without making it sound like you have to do good works to be saved. The other tricky part is talking about these things with any conviction without making it sound like you can tell who's saved and who isn't.
This is what I believe:
Those whom God saves stay saved. I believe the Bible teaches this.
Even those whom God saves still sin. I believe the Bible teaches this too.
Those who are saved will evidence the fruit of their salvation in their life.
The life of discipleship is not a perfectly upward trajectory. It's messy. It's bumpy. It's confusing. There's times of joy and times of pain. There are times we feel close to God and times we feel very far away from Him. There's times we are sure of our salvation and times we wonder how God could ever be interested in scumbags like us.
You can't lose your salvation, because you didn't win it in the first place. Jesus won it for you, and once you are in His hand, nothing can snatch you out (including yourself). The Bible says nothing can separate us from the love of God; not height nor depth nor angels nor demons nor the present nor the future, etc. When it says "nothing" can separate us, I assume it means nothing can separate us.
More properly stated, I believe in the Reformational concept of the perseverance of the saints. (For you Calvinism curious out there -- and I know you're there -- that is the P in the TULIP acronym.) Perseverance of the saints basically means that those who are saved will persevere in their salvation; they will, for lack of a better way to put it, be found faithful on the day they take their last breath or the day Christ returns, whichever comes first.
This sort of gets at the commenter's original remarks, which spoke of the thieves on the cross and deathbed confessions. All I know is that Jesus does the saving and that He requires repentance and faith. If you've truly got that from the beginning -- I mean, if you really repent of your sin and you really exercise faith in Jesus -- then you will be truly repentant and truly faithful at the end, whenever that is. So I, for one, am not comfortable deciding who was sufficiently unbackslidden between the beginning and the end to slide in to heaven. I'm glad God makes those decisions, and I'm glad His grace covers all the times of my unfaithfulness throughout the course of my life. I don't think I'm as bad a guy as I can be, but I am bad enough to deserve hell, so I suspect some will be surprised to see me beyond the pearly gates, just as I'm sure we will all be surprised to see some we never thought would make it.
The bottom line is that simply reciting the sinner's prayer and then going on with life as usual demonstrates not really meaning the sinner's prayer. But the overarching point, for me anyway, is that it is not the sinner's prayer that saves, but Jesus. And if He wants you, me, or the jerk down the street on His team, we're on His team. And there's no trades.
"What if you want to be released from your contract?" I hear you saying. The simple answer to that, as harsh as it may sound, is that anyone who wants out and stays out wasn't really in to begin with. They just wore the jersey.
Now, I know good Christian folk who will disagree with this view. I have some friends, including a very close friend who is a pastor, in the Free Will Baptist denomination, and they believe that one may, in essence, forfeit his or her salvation. (Don't say the phrase "lose your salvation," because aside from it not really capturing what they believe, you will see them getting snarky and patting their pockets, mocking, "Salvation? Salvation? Where'd you go?" My pastor friend does that, the jerk. ;-) No, what they believe is that as someone can choose salvation with their free will, they can then give it up with their free will. (They also believe then that person can't get saved again, which always makes me wonder what happened to free will, but maybe it went wherever the lost salvation goes. Wherever socks escape from the dryer to, maybe?)
The key text for this issue is Hebrews 6:4-6, which talks about those who have "tasted of the heavenly gift" and have yet fallen away. The passage says such people cannot be restored. Theology nerd though I may be, and despite studying this and related issues in this passage and many others for years, I'll be honest in saying I have no idea what this refers to. My theory is that, by "tasted of the heavenly gift," the author of Hebrews is referring to people who participate in the visible church -- specifically, people who take part in the Lord's Supper -- yet who are not really Christians.
Obviously I could be wrong about that, but the main reason why I do not think those who have tasted of the heavenly gift yet fall away are true Christians is that the author contrasts this situation with "things pertaining to salvation" in 6:9. In that verse, the author appears to be saying, "But I know better of you, the ones who are truly saved . . ." Check it out and see if you don't agree.
To some extent, I think a lot of these issues could be tempered, if not resolved, by changing the focus of the work of salvation. Because while I certainly agree that saved people act saved -- the alternative is, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "cheap grace" -- I don't think any amount of acting saved saves anyone, just like I don't think any amount of acting unsaved gets you unsaved. In our sin, we are condemned. But in Christ, we are redeemed. And when the Son has set you free, you are really, truly free. If the work of salvation is accomplished by the strength of Christ according to God's will, and if Christ's strength and God's will are perfect, then the salvation of those who trust Jesus is sure, regardless of their slip-ups, slidings, or silliness. And God, unlike us, always finishes what He starts.
He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it . . .
-- Philippians 1:6
Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever.
-- Jude 24-25