“Once Saved, Always Saved????”
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 2:54pm
Someone told me that he is in discussion with an elder in a local church who is caught up in the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. He asked if I can give some help. On this subject I recommend an OOP book by Guy Duty, “If You Continue”; and Robert Shank’s “Life in the Son.” I also have dealt with it a bit in my “The Faith Once for All,” in the chapter on “Assurance of Salvation,” and in my new book on grace, “Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace,” in ch. 15. Below are a couple of pages from this last reference:
STAYING SAVED IS CONDITIONAL
The conditionality of staying saved is clearly affirmed in numerous passages. John 8:31 says, “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.’” The key word here, and in the following texts, is IF: “if you continue.” Here Jesus speaks to those who were already believers, and declares that CONTINUING in his word—continuing to believe his teaching—is a condition for true discipleship. This clearly implies that it is possible for believers to stop believing and to cease being disciples.
The conditional nature of staying saved and the possibility of a believer becoming lost are clearly taught in John 15:1-6. Here Jesus is discussing those who are already truly in a saved state; they are branches that are “in Me” (v. 2), fully attached to the life-giving vine. But Jesus exhorts these branches to “abide in Me” (v. 4), clearly implying that whether we abide or remain in the vine is our own responsibility. Verse 6 clearly shows that it is possible for one to choose NOT to abide in Christ: “If anyone does not abide in Me . . . .” If anyone makes this choice, two things follow. First, the one who does not abide in Christ (i.e., ceases to believe) “is thrown away as a branch and dries up.” The expression “thrown away” is “eblethe exo,” literally, “thrown outside.” He was at one time inside—inside the church, inside the love of God, inside the circle of grace; but now he is outside, excluded from grace, as the result of his own initiative, not God’s. Second, those who choose to stop believing and who are thus excluded from grace are finally condemned to hell: “They gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned” (see Matt 13:40-42). This is not equivalent to 1 Corinthians 3:15, where one’s WORKS are subjected to the test of fire, thus affecting only the believer’s reward. Here the excluded branches themselves—the fallen ones—are burned.
A similar text that clearly shows the conditional nature of staying saved is Romans 11:17-22. (See my Romans commentary on the text.) Here the original olive tree represents OT Israel, with the natural branches standing for the Jews; and the present version of the olive tree represents the church, with the combination of natural and engrafted branches standing for Jews and Gentiles who have become believers in Christ. In explaining this analogy Paul makes two points that totally disprove the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. First, when the natural branches (the Jews) were confronted with the gospel and then refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah and Lord, “they were broken off for their unbelief” (v. 20). Even if they were true believers in Yahweh and in a saved state prior to hearing the gospel, by virtue of rejecting Christ they became unbelievers—they “fell” (v. 22)—and thus were rejected by God and lost their salvation. Second, for the Gentiles who became believers and were grafted into the olive tree, Paul warns them to remain faithful, “for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off” (vv. 21-22). The final responsibility for staying saved clearly belongs to the believer: “IF YOU CONTINUE in His kindness.” The result of not continuing is made very clear; “otherwise you also,” like the unbelieving Jews, “will be cut off.”
Another such passage is 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” Here Paul speaks to those who have known the gospel facts concerning Jesus (vv. 3-4), who have received them (past tense), who are standing in them (present tense), and who are saved by them (present tense). Surely he is speaking of those who have truly “believed” (v. 2). But Paul clearly says that continuing in this saved state is conditioned on continuing to hold fast to these facts, or continuing to trust in the saving work of Jesus for salvation: “if you hold fast.” If you do not hold fast, your past faith and your present faith will mean nothing; that faith will be “in vain.”
A similar text is Colossians 1:21-23. Verse 21 describes the Colossians’ (and every Christian’s) former state: “formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds.” Verse 22 then relates our present and future states. We are “now reconciled,” i.e., no longer aliens and enemies, but in a saved state because of our faith in the gospel (v. 23). Our future is the full sanctification and deliverance from sin that characterizes heaven: “in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” But whether we reach that final salvation is clearly conditioned upon whether we continue to believe in Jesus Christ. Verse 23 states this condition unequivocally: “if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” The unavoidable implication is that we may choose NOT to “continue in the faith,” and may allow ourselves to be “moved away from the hope of the gospel.” Such a contingency would not be the result of a lapse in God’s protection, nor the triumph of an enemy power; it would simply be the individual’s exercise of his God-given free will.
The passages just discussed uniformly emphasize the conditionality of staying in a saved state: “if you continue . . . if anyone does not abide in me . . . if you continue . . . if you hold fast . . . if indeed you continue.” Even though now you are truly saved, if you do not continue to hold on to Jesus with true faith, you will be truly lost.
This understanding is greatly reinforced by a number of texts that specifically affirm the reality—either potential or actual—of falling away from the saved state into a state of lostness. In Romans 11:22 Paul speaks of the Jews who became unbelievers as “those who fell,” and he says that any Christian who does not continue to trust in the provisions of God’s grace “will be cut off.” In the former case the lostness is actual, and in the latter case it is potential; but in both cases it is real.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the Apostle Paul says that it is possible to run in a race and still lose and not receive the prize (v. 24). Some think this means that undisciplined believers (vv. 25-26) will simply lose their rewards, but not their salvation as such. Verse 27, however, shows this is not the case: “But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” The alternative to finishing the race is to be “disqualified” (“adokimos”). In every other NT use of this word, it refers to the state of lostness, not to a loss of rewards. Paul is indeed saying that even he could lose his salvation if he does not persevere in the race unto the end.
In addressing the Judaizers in Galatians 5:4, Paul specifically affirms that they “have been severed from Christ” and “have fallen from grace.” This is clearly a state of lostness, which was preceded by a state of salvation. They could not have been severed from Christ unless they at one time were joined to him; they could not have fallen from grace unless they at one time had been standing in it (Rom. 5:2).
In 2 Peter 2:4 we are told that angels who sinned are “reserved for judgment,” i.e., lost and destined for hell. We must assume that all angels were originally created holy and in a right relationship with God, also that all were created with the free will to remain holy or to rebel against God and become lost. In this chapter Peter uses the “angels who sinned” as an analogy for Christian teachers who stray into heresy and wickedness, and thus lose their salvation (vv. 1-3, 9-19). That these teachers at one time were true believers is seen in v. 15, which says they have FORSAKEN the right way and “have gone astray.” This is especially seen in vv. 20-22, where these false teachers are described as earlier having “escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 20), and as having “known the way of righteousness” (v. 21). Thus they have experienced three states: lost, saved, and lost again, just as “a sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire” (v. 22). The bad news is that “the last [lost again] state has become worse for them than the first” [original] lost state (v. 20). Without doubt this passage refers to specific individuals who actually fell from grace and lost their salvation. They are “twice dead,” as Jude 12 (NIV) says.
An even clearer teaching on the reality of falling from grace is Hebrews 6:4-8. Actually the entire letter to the Hebrews is based on the fact that such a fall is possible. The letter is apparently being written to Jews (i.e., Hebrews) who had become Christians, but who are now thinking they had made a mistake and are seriously considering abandoning their Christian faith and reconverting to Judaism. The theme of the entire letter is the danger and the foolishness of such a decision. If this decision is not possible, then the whole book of Hebrews is a sham. It is filled with warnings against turning away from Jesus Christ, the only source of salvation (2:1-3; 3:12-14; 4:1, 11; 10:26-39; 12:25).
The clearest such warning is Hebrews 6:4-8. On the one hand, here the writer is without doubt speaking of those who are TRULY SAVED, since they possess five characteristics of the saved state. 1) They are “enlightened,” i.e., they possess true knowledge and understanding of the gospel. 2) They “have tasted of the heavenly gift,” the gift of salvation in general (Eph. 2:8-9). 3) They “have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,” having drunk the living water (John 7:37-39; 1 Cor. 12:13). 4) They “have tasted the good word of God,” having believed and received its promises. 5) They have tasted “the powers of the age to come,” referring to the already-experienced resurrection from spiritual death (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:12-13), in anticipation of the future redemptive resurrection of the body.
The use of the word “taste” (“geuomai”) in these verses does not imply a tentative, aborted sampling of salvation in contrast with actual eating or consuming. (See Heb. 2:9, where the same word is used for Christ’s TASTING DEATH on the cross.) It is used rather to contrast the real but incomplete salvation experienced in this life with the FULLNESS of salvation to be received in glory, in the same sense that the present gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit is but a pledge or down-payment of the full inheritance that is to come (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13-14).
The fact that those to whom this passage speaks are true Christians is also shown in the statement that, if they fall away, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (v. 6). To speak of REnewing them AGAIN to repentance indicates that they were once in a state of repentance, indicative of salvation.
On the other hand, it is also clear that this passage warns against the reality of becoming TRULY LOST, as opposed to simply losing one’s rewards. Verse 6 warns against becoming “fallen away,” a state devoid of repentance and hostile to Christ. The fallen one’s life yields “thorns and thistles”; it is “worthless [“adokimos”] and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned” (v. 8; see John 15:6).
Passages such as these are completely contrary to the “once saved, always saved” idea. They cannot be explained away as referring only to people who were never saved in the first place, nor can they be reduced to the loss of rewards rather than of salvation of such. Nor can we say that they are merely HYPOTHETICAL warnings, by which God motivates us to remain faithful by threatening us with a scenario that in actuality could never occur. Such a ploy would be deceitful and cruel, and is unworthy of our gracious and loving Savior.