Q139 : Can Salvation be Lost?

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Q139 : Can Salvation be Lost?

I have been told by many ministers two different tales of salvation. One says "once saved always saved," another says "no, a person CAN fall from grace."

My mind is trying to get a grasp of these concepts; so tell me if I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior as I did in 1976, and go out and lead a life described in 1Cor 6:9 does the Word teach me that I am still saved and I am clean of all those sins? Or do I have to repent and reaffirm my salvation in Jesus?

Logically to me, if I am called and accept His call I can also reject him through my lifestyle (i.e. 1Cor. 6:9), and loose anything I accepted.

What’s a person to believe?

A139 : by Tony Garland

The question you raise concerns the topic which has commonly been called the security of the believer. Once a person is “saved,” can they subsequently become “un-saved” ?

As with any Biblical question, there are two primary paths by which we might pursue an answer: 1) personal logic and “what makes sense to me;” 2) set aside our own predispositions and examine what Scripture reveals. Unfortunately, in our day Christians are generally ignorant of the Scriptures and predisposed to follow their own personal logic to its (often flawed) conclusion. This tendency is exacerbated by the developing trend to view Christianity from a man-centered rather than God-centered perspective. When our perspective is wrapped up in our own opinions and logic and we view our Christian experience exclusively from our own perspective, we are unlikely to grasp or accept truths which find their foundation in God’s sovereignty rather than our perceived independence. The security of the believer is such a truth.

Let’s start with the passage you mentioned several times in your question:

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 homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. (1Cor. 6:9-11, NKJV)

One way of interpreting this passage is that Paul is stating that believers who continue in fornication, idolatry, adultery, etc. have lost their salvation because they will not be among those who inherit the kingdom of God. But is this really what Paul is saying—especially in light of many other passages which touch on the topic of true conversion? We get an immediate 'hint' that Paul has some other perspective in view because he continues by telling the Corinthian church (among which ongoing sanctification was a big problem), “and such were [past tense] some of you. But you were washed ... sanctified ... justified [all past tense] by the Spirit of our God.” Paul asserts that those he is writing too were cleansed, set apart, and legally acquitted by none other than the Holy Spirit Himself. Some questions spring immediately to mind: 1) what could it mean to be cleansed, set apart, and legally acquitted if I can subsequently 'undo' all this simply by falling into sin? and 2) if the Spirit of God performed this work in my life, can I so easily overthrow that which God has initiated?

What we are facing here is the horns of a dilemma—a dilemma which raises its head at almost every twist and turn within Scripture: “who (or Who) is ultimately sovereign?” Is God sovereign over the salvation of individuals, or is He beholden to our independence and “free will”? Does He allow us, enemies and fallen in the sin of Adam with flawed judgments and ungodly responses, to thwart His intentions by virtue of our own opposition to the work of the Spirit of God when we are said to be among the “chosen, elect” of God—foreknown before the foundation of the world (more below)? Lest we be too quick to assume that our independence trumps God’s sovereignty then consider that Scripture reveals if this situation were to be the case, then none would be saved!

Paul hammers this home when quoting Psalms 14 and 53:

As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.” (Rom. 3:10-11)

Consider these additional teachings of Scripture which bear upon this question of whether, having been truly saved, we can subsequently throw off our salvation and find our new destiny in hell.

Scripture frequently refers to those who have been saved as being “born from above” (John 3:7), “born again” (John 3:3, 1Pe. 1:23), or “born of God” and similar (John 1:13; Gal. 6:15; Jas. 1:18; 1Pe. 1:3; 1Jn. 2:29; 1Jn. 5:1,18). Notice two aspects of this metaphor chosen by the Holy Spirit: 1) we are born; 2) our birth was initiated “from above,” or “of God”. Clearly, the agent Who brings about our birth is God Himself. Just as with our physical birth, our actions do not determine the place or time when our birth takes place. Although we respond in faith, the initiative is clearly God’s — not ours.

Also, when we are born of God, Scripture teaches that we are also sealed with the Spirit. This seal is said to be a guarantee (2Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13). Of what good is this guarantee from God if being sealed with the Spirit may turn out to be temporary? No, the sealing of the Spirit is efficacious and cannot be undone (John 14:16; Eph. 4:30). True believers may grieve the Spirit, but they cannot divest themselves of Him.

Next, consider Jesus’ word concerning the attainment of eternal life.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” (John 5:24)

Jesus emphasizes the reliability and importance of this statement (“most assuredly,” literally: “amen amen”) to make sure His listeners pay attention to the transaction He describes. Notice He says that the believer “has everlasting life” (past tense). This life is everlasting not only in duration, but also in certainty because the believer “has passed from death to life.” If it be possible to subsequently fall away from life back to death (or back and forth based on our daily failures and successes) then we'd expect Jesus to have subsequently proclaimed: “Most assuredly I also tell you, he who forgets My word and walks away from his faith loses everlasting life, and shall come back into judgment, and has passed from eternal life back into death.” Of what value is our knowledge of the guarantee of eternal life if it can so easily be forfeited? In the end, those who believe salvation can be lost can never be sure they have eternal life in the first place. Such people are candidates for manipulation such as is practiced by the Roman Catholic church where one never really knows how many good works or how good one’s behavior must be to avoid hell. (It must also be said that many who teach that salvation can be lost find it convenient as a way to effectively control their congregation. Those who are continually worried about losing their salvation are easily controlled to produce ever more works.) Jesus also informs us that those which receive eternal life are those which were given to Him by the Father (John 17:2). If a true believer can lose their salvation, does this imply that the Father has to “take back” one whom He apparently initially gave to His Son? Was the Father mistaken when he gave such individuals in the first place?

Another factor that bears upon this question is the matter of the predestination, election, and choice of God. Scripture is replete with passages which indicate that believers are elected to their position by the choice of God according to His (inscrutable) purposes. There are many passages which make this plain, including Ps. 65:4; Mat. 24:31; Luke 18:7; John 6:37,44,65; 15:16,19; 17:6,9,11,24; Acts 2:39,48; Rom. 1:7; 8:28-33; Rom. 9:15-16,23; 11:5-7; 1Cor. 1:2,9,26-29; Eph. 1:4-5; Php. 3:12; 1Th. 1:4; 2Ti. 1:9; 1Pe. 1:2; Jude 1:1. This is one of the most extensive teachings to be found in Scripture: that God chose those who would eventually be His (be they individuals, a nation, or angels).

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined [to be] conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (Rom. 8:29-30)

I like to refer to this amazing passage as “the Glory Train.” It can be pictured like a series of box cars which are linked together to form a train: foreknowledge+predestination+calling+justification+glorification. The “engine” is God’s foreknowledge. When examined closely, we find God’s foreknowledge is more than just “knowing ahead of time” but includes His determinative will. The caboose on the other end of the verse is our glorification. If we are ultimately captains of our own salvation, then we have to ignore or reinterpret God’s foreknowledge, predestination, and calling. (The calling described here is not just a general call to all men to be saved, but a specific call to individuals who ARE saved. The same ones who are called are also glorified.)

One encounters all manner of contortions undertaken in a vain attempt to circumvent the implications found in such passages. Some attempt to say that election is only of a group and never of individuals. Others attempt to escape by way of turning election on its head through the unbiblical idea that foreknowledge and election simply mean that God didn't know initially who would respond to the general call to salvation, so He looked ahead down the corridor of time to see who would eventually choose Him and then declared that He chose them first! Such distortions of the plain teaching of Scripture exhibit an unwillingness to accept the God-centered salvation which Scripture clearly describes. In fact, if salvation is truly man-centered, then we are left asking why the apostle Paul wrote chapter 9 of the book of Romans? If man determines salvation rather than God, then the questions Paul addresses in Romans 9 are pointless. There is no need for him to write:

So then [it is] not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed [it], “Why have you made me like this?” (Rom. 9:16-20)

This challenging exposé of God’s sovereignty completely falls on the floor if believers transition willy-nilly in and out of salvation according to their present foibles. If this were so, then Paul would have no reason to address any conceptual difficulty on our part concerning the topics of Romans 9 since it is patently “fair” from our perspective for those who “choose God” of their own merit and maintain steadfast faith by their own perseverance to “merit” salvations while others do not — since men’s independent and differing actions alone determine their fate. We would have no trouble with such an idea since it would remove the need to consider the uncomfortable implications of God’s overruling purpose and sovereignty. Clearly, passages like Romans 9 are describing a reality which is much more difficult for us to accept!

We also have an extremely strong passage concerning the keeping power of Jesus and the Father:

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone 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 My Father's hand. (John 10:27-29)

WOW! This is security! What a blessing it is intended to be for believers! Yet some are still unwilling to accept the passage at face value by suggesting that the “anyone” who is unable to snatch them out of the hands of the Father or the Son does not include the saved person himself — that a person can “snatch themselves” out of God’s hands! However, it is clear that ““anyone” and ““no one”” denotes no human being — including the believer him or herself.

So then, what are we to make of passages (besides 1Cor. 6:9 which you've mentioned above) which seem to be written to believers, but urge self-examination and wariness concerning whether one is bearing the fruit of salvation? Passages such as Mat. 24:50-51; 25:11-13; 25:30; John 15:2,6; Rom. 11:21-22; Gal. 5:21; Col. 1:22-23; 1Ti. 1:19; 2Ti. 2:18; Heb. 2:1; 6:4-6; 10:26,39; 2Pe. 1:10, 2:20-21; Rev. 3:11.

Firstly, we know that Scripture is not chock full of contradiction: it is not teaching security and lack of security at the same time. It is my observation that passages used in support of falling away from true salvation are generally less clear than those which strongly support eternal security. When carefully examining these passages, questions which must always be asked include 1) is this passage dealing with individuals who were ever truly saved (Mat. 7:23)? and 2) is the resulting condition one of eternal damnation or merely loss of reward (1Cor. 3:15)? (Note that if Heb 6:4-6 is describing loss of salvation, then it also teaches the impossibility of restoring a previous salvation, now lost. This does not square with the generally held view of those who reject eternal security that salvation may be gained and lost multiple times.)

It is my view that Scripture is purposefully written by the Holy Spirit to contain “spiritual speed bumps.” These passages are difficult for their target audience: they purposefully separate between faithful and faithless readers. Passages which repeatedly warn of the consequences of ongoing serious sinful practice target those who are Christians in proclamation only—they have never truly been born of God. They exhibit “faith without works” which is dead faith and not true biblical faith (Jas. 2:17-24). They may be simply toying with Christianity and have never experienced true salvation. The Holy Spirit has not taken up residence within them and therefore they are not motivated toward developing a pattern of godly living characterized by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25). To such readers, passages which warn of eternal fearful results should read exactly that way since that is a very real possibility unless they are born again.

On the other hand, the many strong passages which set forth the truth of the security of the believer provide enormous peace, certainty, and gratitude for those who know they are truly saved and who rest in this work of God by His grace which they neither procured nor can thwart. Another way to look at it is this: the issue is not about what a believer CAN do but what scripture teaches a true believer WILL do. Instead of asking CAN a believer depart from God, the real question is whether a true believer WILL depart? Scripture teaches that a true believer will not depart from God. He has been predestined, elected, chosen, justified, and sealed—all at the ultimate initiative of God.

The idea that salvation can come and go entirely at the whim of an inconsistent believer is not supported by the entirety of Scripture and, if it were true, would result in the strange conclusion that security could only be found by dying as soon as possible after having initially come to faith:

And does not the logic of the Arminian system tell us that the wise thing for the Christian to do is to die as soon as possible and thus confirm the inheritance which to him is of infinite value? In view of the fact that so many have fallen away, is it worth while for him to remain here and risk his eternal salvation for the sake of a little more life in this world?1

Now to your ultimate question:

So tell me if I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior as I did in 1976, and go out and lead a life described in 1Cor 6:9 does the Word teach me that I am still saved and I am clean of all those sins? Or do I have to repent and reaffirm my salvation in Jesus? Logically to me, if I am called and accept His call I can also reject him through my lifestyle (i.e. 1Cor. 6:9), and loose anything I accepted.

Here’s how I'd answer:

  • You state that Jesus is your Lord and Savior. What makes this so—what evidence is there of this? You are evidently living in a way which demonstrates He is not. If you were born of God in 1976 and indwelt by His Spirit, then how can you live the life described in 1Cor. 6:9 many years hence? In my view, the “worry about whether you are saved” passages are intended for people like you describe yourself to be. (Interestingly, such passages are having their intended effect of challenging your assumptions about what it means to be a Christian.)
  • If you are completely free to do whatever your sinful predilections desire, then you are still a slave to sin—you have not been set free. It also seems unlikely that you truly know Christ because Scripture maintains that one who is born of the Spirit will not continue in gross sin. You say He is Lord, but how can it be meaningful to refer to Jesus as Lord if you continue to live in a way which significantly denies His teaching? John, who of all the apostles knew what it meant to be close to Christ, maintained that true love is exhibited by obedience (John 14:24; 15:14; Acts 5:32; 1Jn. 3:24).
Obviously, I am not in a good position to assess the precise situation or your heart. But given what you describe juxtaposed against what I see Scripture to teach, I would question your assertion that you have truly experienced salvation. There is no formula by which salvation is obtained—it is a private work of God in the heart of men. Unfortunately, some have taught that an easy emotional response, such as walking forward at an event or praying “the sinners prayer,” is a rote means by which salvation is attained. Some have been misled by this to assume they are saved yet continue to live a life which completely denies what Jesus taught. Embracing such a dichotomy is precisely what Scripture warns us against.

I would urge you to get in fellowship with a local body of believers, preferably at an established church, and seek the counsel of experienced, godly men who can meet with you in person and establish trust in order to more carefully assess the situation you find yourself in. Rather than being concerned with whether salvation can be lost, I suspect the more relevant question may be whether it was ever gained?

For additional background on the issue of the security of the believer, consider the following resource: Robert Gromacki, Is Salvation Forever?a (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1973).

One point I should clarify: I am not saying that you must make Jesus “Lord” and walk in complete obedience to be saved. This would contradict Paul’s teaching in 1Cor. 3:12-15 which describes some saved individuals as having no works that endure Christ’s judgment, yet they themselves are still saved. To me, this differs from what you seem to be describing: the ongoing, persistent, practice of serious sin, in which case I would look to the balancing truth where John teaches that true faith is not dead, but produces works (Jas. 2:17-24). Resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit by a believer is one thing, persisting in ongoing sinful practices because one has never experienced true spiritual birth is another. Determining this distinction is where developing a personal relationship with someone who can give solid Biblical counsel which you can trust would be extremely helpful.


1.Ref-0096, p. 194


Ref-0096Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1932).

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