As I said in a previous article, it seems to me many of us argue for Scriptural positions in such a way that it constitutes shooting ourselves in the foot. One of the items of doctrine that seems to cause sparks and sometimes even explosions is the question of whether or not a Christian is eternally secure. In other words, once we are saved and in Christ, can we lose our salvation? I have been all around this doctrine. I have looked at it from almost every angle, and still have not reached a hard and fast decision on it.
Let me just dance around it a little bit in this short blog, without being overly critical (hopefully) of any one. I myself probably stand somewhere between the two extremes of doctrine, which might be stated this way: (a) “You’d better watch out because you might lose your salvation”; (b) “Don’t worry; you can’t lose your salvation.”
Is it possible to stand between these two positions? Yes, it is, as I hope to show.
It is surprising to see how many well-known Christian theologians and teachers accept the once-saved-always saved position, and have even written books on the subject. Several come immediately to mind. John R. Rice (deceased), Merrill F. Unger (also deceased), Charles Stanley, John MacArthur, Charles Swindoll, R.T. Kendall, Robert Stein, and many others are in this category.
I do know that this teaching is grossly misunderstood in the churches that lean toward an Arminian position. (It is probably not correct to lay the doctrine of insecure salvation at the doorstep of Jacob Arminius, because, even though Arminianism is generally thought to be the mirror opposite of Calvinism, this is not quite true. For one thing, Arminius himself apparently never denied eternal security—though his followers did.)
Most opponents of eternal security believe the doctrine teaches that, after becoming a Christian, a person can do anything he wants to, or is inclined to, and still be saved. The doctrine does not mean that, and has never meant that. A few of its adherents may abuse it by living a loose life while expecting to go to heaven. But the true doctrine of eternal security teaches that, though one may now and then fall into sin, overall he or she will strive to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. In other words, an immoral or impure life raises strong doubts as to whether the person in question was ever really saved. (I realize I am being simplistic in this article. For example, the "true doctrine" of eternal security is quite a complex matter. But as an overview, perhaps it is acceptable to state it as I have.)
I have gone over some of the Scriptures again—those on both sides of the argument. It appears that there are passages to back up both a secure and an insecure salvation. There may be (and I stress may be) about an equal number of passages to support both sides of the issue. I was recently discussing it with a friend of mine, and we just wound up trading passages back and forth. I would give him a passage on my side, and he would toss one back to support his side. We got precisely nowhere.
One thing, however, always puzzles me. If there are, say, ten passages that seem to teach that one can lose his or her salvation, and ten that seem to teach that one cannot lose it, which would you choose? It seems to me that a person who has any consciousness of sin in his life (and surely we all do!) would choose the ten that teach that he or she cannot lose their salvation. It is shooting oneself in the foot to argue strenuously against secure salvation, unless one is sure he is so holy that he’s never going to be in any danger of losing his own salvation.
Don’t get me wrong. I admire those people who sincerely believe that they are defending Scripture, even when the drift of their teaching works to their own detriment. But I wonder if sometimes the proponents of an insecure salvation are really saying something like this: “I have worked hard for my salvation. I have sweated and labored, prayed, denied myself, buffeted my body, worked for the Lord, and lived a pure life. Don’t think you are going to get into heaven by indulging the flesh, enjoying life, and generally doing nothing for the Lord!”
Robert Shank was a Baptist who, supposedly, once believed in eternal security. He then turned against this doctrine and wrote the book, Life in the Son, to try to prove that salvation is not secure, that one may lose his or her salvation. What was his motive in writing such a book, other than the fact that he got a lot of attention for it? I don’t really know what his motive was, but did it ever occur to him that he was, possibly, cutting the ground out from under his own salvation? Why is it that C.S. Lewis’ dictum about hell is so widely ignored: “Hell is not about the other person; it’s about you.”
Another interesting quote (but I don’t know who said it) is this one: If we could lose our salvation, most of us would. This thought, or this possibility, is also pretty much ignored by the insecure salvation camp. We need to give more attention to those who are trying to warn against the consequences of teaching an insecure salvation. Conversely, I believe those who teach that a person may make it to heaven while in a state of deliberate sin and turning against the Lord, is likewise guilty of teaching error.
While, at this point, I am not in the once-saved-always-saved camp, I do tend toward a position that would maintain that the only way one can lose his salvation is to deliberately turn away from the Lord, and spurn the faith he once professed. Otherwise he’s not going to lose it, and he is definitely not going to lose it as easily as some seem to think. I just don’t understand why some people can scold the secure-salvation people so glibly, while all the time ignoring the possibility that they themselves may not have done enough to get them to heaven!
Here is something to ponder: if you are not in by being good, how can you be out by being bad?
I think that the insecure-salvation teachers may be guilty of three errors regarding the doctrine they are teaching.
1.They have an inadequate view of sin. Some say “real Christians don’t sin.” True, most Christians avoid the more serious sins, such as those listed in the Ten Commandments. But even if we manage to do nothing overtly that would displease God (which few of us manage to do), sins of omission dog our steps constantly. C. Gordon Olson says, “Even if we set aside sins of commission for a moment and consider sins of omission, it becomes obvious that all Christians continuously sin” (Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism, p. 314). James says, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (3:17). At the very least, most Christians are guilty of failing to carry out the great commission, or even to be much interested in it.
Why is it, then, that only sensitive believers are so acutely aware of their sin? Do we not understand that to be aware of the dirt in our lives is the very sign of the presence of God? Thus to be conscious of sin is not a bad thing.
2. Secondly, many Christians are overconfident of their ability to live a pure life. What I hear from the Arminian camp is that, though Christ started the salvation process by dying on the cross for us, it is now up to us to keep ourselves saved. We supposedly do that by living a sinless life. But of course we don’t, and can’t, do that. As noted earlier, many who criticize the secure-salvation position, don’t seem to realize that they are placing themselves on shaky ground.
This is where the difference between the tough-minded and tender-minded comes in. The tough-minded tend to be over optimistic about their standing with God. They are often unaware of the sins of thought, the sins of pride, anger, jealousy, and many other of the “respectable” sins that nevertheless greatly displease God. They might think they are living a pure life. But Isaiah says that all our “righteousness” is as filthy rags before God (64:6).
3.Third, proponents of an insecure salvation are guilty of ignoring a number of plain Scriptures. Of course I can’t begin to enumerate all of those passages here, but there are four or five of them that plainly teach eternal security, the most obvious one, of course being John 10:27-29. The heart of this passage is simply: “my sheep shall never perish.” Non-Calvinistic churches have to ignore this passage, because they have no adequate interpretation of it. It is a thorn in the side of an insecure theology.
There are plenty of others, such as Ephesians 1:4-6. Insecure salvation people have to leave this verse alone, or mutilate its interpretation, since it teaches that present believers were “chosen” before the foundation of the world and “predestined” to be adopted as God’s sons. But since many of us don’t believe God would “choose” some and not choose others, we have to say that election is not in the Bible. Personally, I believe election is based on foreknowledge (Rom. 8:29; 1 Peter 1:2); thus it is not unconditional election. If someone wants to say, “Oh, then that’s not really election,” then that’s all right with me.
There are a number of other passages that are just as clear as the above.
Finally, it should be noted that God’s grace cannot really be understood or appreciated as long as we are on shaky ground with our salvation. How does an insecure salvation proponent know that he’s going to make it? I even heard some men say one time that they couldn’t know if they were going to heaven until they died. Really? What a travesty of the faith! But those who teach that sin, or at least too much sin, will cause us to lose our salvation never really know whether they themselves are not in that very situation. How does anyone know for sure he or she has not crossed the line?
If we don’t know that God has saved us eternally, then we have to be fearful that he may someday disown us. If God’s love isn’t forever, then it’s not even as good as that of an earthly father. Are we uneasy around our earthly fathers because we fear that we may say or do something that will cause him to disown us? Of course not! But this is the way we must behave around God as long as we don’t know, or believe, that we are his forever. As long as we think that there may be some sin that will cause God to “throw us away,” so to speak, then we cannot enjoy that “perfect love” or that “perfect peace” that only Jesus can give.
If we are confident that we are not going to sin such a disastrous sin, then either (1) we are helping our own salvation along by being good, which can only take us so far, or (2) we must admit that it is, at base, God who is keeping us. In other words, it is the persevering work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that is responsible for getting us safely home. But if that is so, then we are pretty close to eternal security.