A Tension to Manage? A Discussion on the Issue of Whether or Not a Believer Can Lose Their Salvation

February 4, 2018

 

Can a person lose their salvation?

 

It is a difficult question because there are deep ramifications to the answer.  If the answer is an emphatic no, then hypthetically a person could accept Christ, deny their faith, reject Christ, and still merit the blessings of salvation.  There is an injustice and cheapening of the life of faith that comes with this view.  On the other hand, if the answer is an emphatic yes, then to some degree the retention of salvation is dependent upon an individuals behavior and actions.  This smacks of "works-based-salvation" which is clearly refuted within the Gospel message.

 

So which is it?  Is the answer clear?  Or is it possible that this theological issue is a tension to be managed?

 

A theological tension is a theological issue that is viewed differently by Christians with reasonable Scriptural support on both sides.  Let me be clear, theological tensions differ from theological essentials.  Theological essentials are issues that cannot be compromised within the bounds of Evangelical Christianity.  These include the Trinitarian nature of God, the deity of Jesus, the physical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the inerrancy of Scripture, and salvation by grace through faith.  

 

Theological tensions, on the other hand, are issues that can be looked at differently but do not compromise the essential doctrines of Evangelical Christianity.  These include worship style, end times chronology, and the age of the earth.

 

A theological tension does not imply that the theological issue is un-important or should be treated in a cavalier way.  Quite opposite, it is issues like these that should be studied and discussed to search for clarity and truth.

 

The theological issue of whether a person can lose their salvation or not is longstanding, and there are solid, Scriptural arguments on both sides of this issue.

 

While I will most likely not settle hundreds of years of debate in one article, I would like to give a Scriptural assessment of this issue to help the reader understand the argument better and bring some clarity.

To begin, we will look at two Scriptures that are used to make the case that a person could lose their salvation.  Hebrews 3:12 and Hebrews 6:4-6 both seem to suggest that salvation endures only by a consistent lifestyle of growth in righteousness, holiness, and obedience.  I will briefly explain these verses below. 

 

Hebrews 3:12

The writer is clear that an evil, unbelieving heart can cause a person to fall away from the living God.  There are a few things that are interesting about this verse.  First, the writer addresses this passage to "brothers."  This indicates a familial connection common in the New Testament when a person is referring to fellow Christians.  It seems very likely that this is the case in this verse.  Second, the writer seems concerned that these believers will/have/are giving into an apathy or apostasy that will cause them to fall away from God.  "Fall away" (Gk. aphistemi) is an important word here because it carries a connotation of a person who shuns, flees, or walks away from something that they once possessed.  It is impossible to "fall away" from something that was never received.  

 

Taking this into consideration, this Scripture seems to be a warning written to Christians of the danger that the salvation that they possess might be lost if it is not held on to.

 

Hebrews 6:4-6

This Scripture is one of the most polarizing Scriptures on this issue.  The writer warns of the impossibility of resorting a person who falls away from salvation after that person has been enlightened, experienced God, and participated with the Holy Spirit.  This is certainly the most severe warning in all of the Book of Hebrews (and arguably the entire New Testament on this issue).  The word "restore" (Gk. anakainizo) is important because it would not make sense to use this word if it were not referring to someone who had already received salvation.  "Restore" indicates that something was received, lost, and has the possibility of being received again.

 

Again, the writer seems to be warning the Believers in the church that it is possible to participate in salvation and then fall away. 

There are other Scriptures that seem to indicate that salvation is secure and cannot be lost.  I will focus on three Scriptures: John 6:37, John 10:27-29, and Ephesians 1:13-14.  I will give a quick analysis of each of these verses below. 

 

John 6:37

The Father draws individuals to the Son.  God is seen to be the initiator of salvation.  And whomever the Father draws, Jesus will never cast out.  The straightforward reading of this Scripture points to eternal security for those who put their trust in Jesus.

 

John 10:27-29

Twice in this verse the phrase "no one will snatch" is used.  The word "snatch" (Gk. harpazo) is a verb that conveys the idea of being seized or carried away.  Jesus uses this phrase in reference to those who will put their faith in Him.  They will not be snatched out of His hand nor the Father's hand.  Jesus indicates that salvation is permanent and eternal, and those who receive it will not have it taken away. 

 

Ephesians 1:13-14

Paul writes about something that takes place when the Gospel is heard and received.  He calls it the sealing of the Holy Spirit.  He goes on to explain that this seal is a guarantee of the inheritance that is given to those who believe in Jesus by faith.  There is no indication here nor anywhere else in Scripture that this seal is removed or can be lost.

Two sides to the theological argument and solid Scriptural support for both claims, and I only analyzed a small portion of the Scripture that is used for either side.

 

Can there be a conclusion to this question?

 

As I said earlier, I think that in the big picture this theological issue is a tension to manage.  However, I will take some time now to explain which position I favor.

First, it must be established clearly that God is the initiator of salvation.  

 

J.I. Packer described the concept of regeneration as a spiritual change in man that is brought about by the Holy Spirit which allows a person to respond to God. [1]  In other words, man does not come into relationship with God by ascending to an internal knowledge such as the Gnostics taught.  Rather, salvation is initiated by God (John 6:42) and responded to by man. 

 

The process happens like this: God regenerates an individual by drawing them to himself (John 6:42), the individual hears the Good News (Romans 10:14), receives the Good News by faith and is justified by God (Ephesians 2:8), proclaims this faith (Romans 10:9), is sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), and submits to an ongoing process of sanctification (Romans 6:22).

 

What is obvious from this process is that salvation is the work of God - not man.  God regenerates and God justifies.  Man is responsible for responding with faith and continuing in the sanctification process through obedience.

 

With this in mind, it is hard to see from Scripture how true salvation can be lost.  Yet, it is not hard to see how salvation could be rejected.  It is also not hard to see how a person who has been in a "Christian" environment could think that they have salvation although they might never have believed nor publicly proclaimed their faith.

 

So what of the Scriptures in Hebrews mentioned above?  What is their purpose if in fact salvation cannot be lost?

 

I think that these Scriptures were written to Christian audiences and serve as warnings for those who have grown apathetic in their salvation or for those who think that they have salvation.  They are a wake-up call intended to spur Believers on in their faith.  In addition, they also expose the true nature of those who might think they are Believers, but have not truly put their faith in Jesus.

The conclusion of this article brings me back to the original question at the top:

 

Can a person lose their salvation?

 

I do not believe that Scripture demonstrates that this is possible.

 

Genuine faith results in justification that makes a person right before God.  This right standing cannot be removed.

 

It is possible, however, for a person to think that they have salvation and actually be void of it.  

 

An individual who thinks they are a Believer, but whose life does not reflect the fruit of the Spirit or on-going sanctification should assess whether or not they have made a genuine decision to place their faith in Jesus.

While this article will probably not put to rest the debate, my hope was to bring some clarity to the issue. 

 

While there is reasonable Scriptural evidence for both sides of this argument, Scripture does seem to more clearly demonstrate that salvation cannot be lost.

 

In the end, as with other theological tensions, we will probably not be able to comprehend the fullness of this issue until we see Jesus in eternity.

 

Until then, it is incumbent upon us to keep diligently studying and searching for truth.  The more that we do this, the more we realize the incomprehensible nature of our God and we are left in awe and join the Apostle Paul in proclaiming:

 

"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgements and inscrutable his ways!  'For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?'  'Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?' For from him and through him and to him are all things.  to him be glory forever.  Amen" (Romans 11:34-36).

[1] J.I. Packer, "Regeneration." Accessed February 3, 2018, https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/packer_regen.html.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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