The question, “Can a Christian lose their salvation?” is troubling. Many of us ask this when friends and/or relatives pass away. Although they professed faith in Christ, their lifestyle didn’t support it. So we wonder, “Will I ever see them again?”
Pastors struggle with this also. Many people profess their faith to us and ask us to baptize them. But when they stop attending church or return to their sin we wonder, “Was their faith genuine? Or have they fallen away?”
Most people raised in the church are baptized as preteens or teenagers. But the statistics show that most students abandon their faith after high school. This leaves youth ministers asking, “Did my students lose their salvation? Or were they never saved to begin with?”
This series has studied what the Bible says about this issue. In the first post, it assured us of our salvation. In the second post, it warned us not to lose our salvation. In the third post, it cautioned us that things aren’t always what they seem.
We are now ready to answer the question, “Can a Christian lose their salvation?”
A Flawed Trend
There are two final mistakes to avoid when answering this question. The first is to not answer it. Many try to avoid it. They don’t want to step into the “debate” by picking a side. Or maybe they are still wrestling with it for themselves.
That is selfish and lazy. This is an important question that many people ask. For some it is intensely personal. We must study the Scriptures, form our own conclusions, and be prepared to share them with others.
The second mistake is to make this question an issue of fellowship. As Christians we tend to divide over what should unite us. We bicker and quarrel. We uphold our views as the truth and brand other views as “false teaching.”
But do we not all agree that God saves sinners? And do we not all agree that in order to be considered genuine, salvation must be proven by a lifetime of faithfulness? So is there any legitimate cause for division over this issue?
What the Bible Says
We have considered all the pertinent Scriptures and avoided all the common mistakes. But the question is still difficult to answer.
Theologically I feel compelled to answer “no.” The Bible clearly says that salvation is a work of God from start to finish. Paul says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined…and those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30). Will God lose someone in the midst of this process?
But biblically I feel compelled to answer “yes.” The New Testament strongly warns us not to fall away. Peter says, “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then turn their backs on [it]” (2 Peter 2:21). What does it mean to “know the way of righteousness” if not to be saved?
In light of this tension, the best answer seems to be “probably not.” A Christian probably cannot lose their salvation. And most, in fact, will not lose their salvation.
What It Means For Us
This means we must stop judging others. As Paul asks, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4).
So mind your business and worry about your own salvation. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Instead of passing judgment on others’ salvation, live in such a way that yours cannot be questioned.
What do you think? Can a Christian lose their salvation? Share your thoughts with a comment below!
(Feel free to share this post! Or follow my blog to receive new posts!)
27 thoughts on ““Once Saved Always Saved”: Can a Christian Lose Their Salvation? (Part 4)”
I am having a hard time following your logic. I read through the whole series, and all of your admissions of what Scripture actually says and warns about falling away. You say that scripturally, you feel compelled to say that yes, in light of these warnings, from Jesus Himself and every author of the New Testament, a Christian can fall away from grace. And yet you see a conflict with your theology, and resolve “probably not.” How do you get there from these facts? To me, it seems a more important question to ask whether your theology isn’t inconsistent with Scripture.
That’s a fair question! In a previous post we saw that things aren’t always what they seem. So when a Christian seems to lose their salvation (“fall away”), it’s more likely they were never saved to begin with or are still being brought to repentance. Even if it’s possible for a Christian to lose their salvation, it should be regarded as rare and extreme.
Let me ask you – why are you making the warnings more definitive and absolute than the promises?
I think part of the complication in this question, as I’ve written, is in whether salvation is a one-time, once-and-for-all event, as Protestant theology tends to view it, or whether it is an ongoing process, as numerous passages of Scripture suggest (e.g. Rom 13:11, 1 Pet 1:8-9, Phil 1:6, 2:12, etc.) and you yourself seem to admit. If salvation is something that is already complete and finalized in the believer’s life, then neither Scripture’s frequent exhortations to perseverance (e.g. Matt 24:13) nor its warnings against falling away make much sense — hence your theological conflict. Your language about “losing one’s salvation” and “never being saved to begin with” assumes that one’s salvation is a done deal as soon as one believes. But if salvation is a way (a road or journey) as Scripture frequently calls it, then the exhortations to persevere and warnings not to fall away are much more consistent. Falling away, in that understanding, is not so much losing something one has already received, as failing to complete the journey that we have embarked on with Christ.
I could ask you the same thing: Why are you making the promises more definitive and absolute than the warnings? In my understanding, all of Scripture is equally definitive and absolute and true. So if one’s understanding of some passages of Scripture seems to conflict with others, then it follows that one’s understanding of one or both passages is incorrect. The promises are just that, promises: and God will always keep his end without fail. But if we have any role to play at all — which a lot of Protestant theology tends to minimize — then we have an end of it to keep as well. It is our charge, as Scripture itself charges, to persevere and not to fall away. All the talk of predestination and election means only that God knows and has ordained the outcome: he knows who will ultimately reach that destination and who will not, and has a reward waiting for those who do. Protestants, again, tend to conflate believing with being elected to that final perseverance. But if believers can fall away, as you have explored, then it follows that not everybody who believes is guaranteed to persevere to the end.
I agree that salvation is a process and not a single point in time. But it is a process that is initiated and sustained by God. Since this is so, how can we fail to complete it? It is true that we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). But we do so with the confidence that “he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
I also agree that the warnings and promises are equally definitive and absolute. But so are the passages that teach not all who seem to be saved are in fact saved. This leads me to conclude that most Christians who “fall away” are simply revealing their unsaved condition.
You say you agree salvation is a process, but your language continues to assume it is a completed binary state: How can we even have a “saved” or “unsaved” state before the process, our Christian journey, is complete, if salvation is in fact a process or journey? Once again, the essential problem is free will. Yes, God begins, sustains, and completes the process. But your argument — “how can we fail to complete it?” — suggests that somehow our free will is removed by God’s sovereign action. Yes, we have every faith and confidence in God’s promises, if we hold fast to the course (Heb 10:23) — but what if we don’t hold fast to the course? What if we don’t want to? What if we would rather immerse ourselves in our old, sinful lifestyles (1 Pet 1:14, etc.)? Is God going to save us anyway? Many Protestants, especially the Baptist camp, argue just that, that just because someone prayed a “sinner’s prayer” in his youth before returning to a life of profligacy, he is nonetheless, regardless of his fruits, actions, fidelity, or lack thereof, unquestionably and irrevocably “saved.” Most others, primarily the Reformed camp, argue, as you do, that he was never really “saved” to begin with, if he did fall away. I would agree with that: because none of us are really, completely “saved,” beyond the possibility of falling away, until we persevere to the end (Matt 24:13, etc.).
(As a sidenote: I think you are taking Philippians 1:6 out of context, as many Protestants do. This is not an absolute promise or assurance for all Christians, but a statement of Paul’s confidence, in a particular group of Christians, because of their faithful actions (Phil 1:7). Paul nonetheless continues to exhort and pray for their faithfulness (vv. 9-10) — and it is these same Christians, of course, whom he exhorts to “work out [complete] their own salvation.”)
The word “saved” seems to be frustrating you. I agree that salvation is an ongoing process. But there is a definite moment when we stop belonging to the world and start belonging to Jesus. Maybe “converted,” “justified,” or “adopted” would be more apt for this discussion. Our salvation may not yet be complete, but we are “in Christ.” Jesus says, “No one can snatch [my sheep] out of my hand…no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). Paul says nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ” (Romans 8:39). Being “in Christ” does seem to be a completed binary state.
To use the technical theological terms as I understand them, being “regenerated” is the beginning of the process, and yes, that’s not something that one can lose or can be undone. And yes, you can say in a real sense that you’ve been “saved” at that point: saved from your sins, from your past life, from the world. You’re right, I do get frustrated at the way Evangelicals use that term “saved” and speak of “getting saved”: it’s not really a biblical way of speaking (Scripture speaks of us “having been saved” in the past, “being saved” progressively in the present, and says we “will be saved” in the Day of the Lord), it gets in the way of discussing questions like this, and it can lead to complacency, especially when paired with ideas of “eternal security.” Paul speaks of Baptism as initiating us into Christ (Gal 3:27, Rom 6:3), and says that “if any one in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), an image of this idea of regeneration. At the same time, Jesus tells us that if we are in Him but do not abide in Him, we will be cast away and thrown into the fire (John 15:6). So being “in Christ” is a wonderful and blessed place to be, but it’s not the end and completion of being “saved”.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God, it’s true — but that love extends even to lost sinners and those perishing (Romans 5:8), so Paul’s glorying in Christ’s love in Romans 8:38-39 can’t be held as any sort of promise of eternal security. An in light of all Christ’s other warnings, it seems that even though “no one can snatch [sheep] out of [His] hand,” they can wander from Him of their own volition. Also, this passage may refer to the elect who have been chosen from all eternity, and not necessarily all those members of the visible flock. These are fine distinctions to make, whether all those who were “among us” were “of us”; i.e. whether Christians who fall away were truly “of us” (and “in Christ”) at all. Reformed Protestants tend to argue that no one who falls away was ever a Christian at all, but again, there is the problem of the Christian who bears good fruit before departing; and Scripture does support the possibility that even those who have been “in Christ,” who have tasted of His grace, can depart from it (Heb 6:4-6, etc.).
You seem to overlook the passages I treated in my previous post – those that suggest things aren’t always what they seem. “The Christian who bears good fruit before departing” may not have truly departed; it’s more likely they are still being brought to repentance by the Holy Spirit and other believers. Falling “out of Christ” isn’t something we should think happens suddenly or easily, if it can happen at all.
Excellent point Joseph. There is more than ample evidence as cited here in this post that the Bible supports the idea that we can fall away. I would present the idea that if my wife told me she loved me and yet cheated on me constantly, that her love would not be real. In the same way, we can give our lives over to Christ in baptism and be truly in love with him and then decide by our own volition to go our own way thus creating a separation between us and God. Like the Bible says in James, our works and the way we live our lives justifies our faith.
Thanks, Joe. You have excellent points as well. It all comes down, I think, to a question of free will: Does God give us the free will to accept or reject Him? St. Augustine argued, and all orthodox Christians believe, that the sinner dead in trespasses cannot choose God without His grace moving the sinner’s heart; but does the Christian believer then have the free will to choose to follow God or to choose his own way of sin and death? Especially Reformed or Calvinistic Christians make arguments that result in the conclusion (though they strive to avoid it) that no, he doesn’t have that freedom and ultimately doesn’t have free will at all. But is this consistent with Scripture? Would a loving God deny us the free will to love Him freely, and is it really love if we have no free will at all?
This is beside the point. When we were dead in sin, we freely chose to disobey God. But when God saved us from sin, the Holy Spirit sanctified our free will so we can freely choose to obey Him. Paul says, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18). It’s bondage either way! God does not violate our free will by keeping us saved.
No, I actually think you’ve nailed it. If, our free will having been liberated by grace, we can freely choose to obey God, can we not then freely choose to disobey Him? And if we do not have that freedom, can it really be said that we have “free will”? If God does not violate our free will by keeping us saved, then do we not have the free will to walk away? As I said, this is the essential problem: Protestants want to have it both ways, maintaining both that we have free will and that God’s grace constrains us from falling away. How does this not violate our free will? Scripture exhorts us to persevere and not to fall away. Unless all of Scripture is a fiction, we must then have the freedom and the capacity to fall away.
This is why my answer to the question is “probably not” rather than “definitely not.” It seems we do still have the freedom to reject God, which is why the Bible warns us not to. But I don’t think most Christians will make that choice. As the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, we increasingly (freely) choose to obey God rather than disobey Him. His sovereignty and our free will begin working together rather than against each other as they used to.
I can’t really speculate on how many do fall away; but it’s important to realize that we can. Enough will that Scripture expressly warns against it, and repeatedly (Matt 24:10, 1 Tim 4:1, etc.) — so we should never be complacent in the grace we’ve received. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), and not even those closest to Jesus are safe (as the example of Judas indicates). I think the intentions of most proponents of “eternal security” are good, meant to encourage and reassure, but I have heard some use it as a crutch and an excuse not to pursue holiness or to persevere in it: “I’m ‘saved’; I’m good; Jesus has it covered.” At one time, that was the way I saw it, too.
Maybe Scripture expressly and repeatedly warns against it because of its severity rather than its frequency. And in the first post of this series I warn that “eternal security” is not an excuse for complacency!
You say “it’s important to realize that we can” lose salvation. Why is “free will” such a stumbling block for you? Why are you making it such an issue? Where does the Bible ever speak of our “free will” or God’s obligation to honor it in salvation?
Is it a bad thing for God to continue moving us along in the process, even (at times) against our will? Would He be treating us poorly or unfairly? Is it wrong for Him to continue saving us, even if we don’t want or like it? Would this not testify to His goodness, faithfulness, and grace?
And another thing – does God not have “free will”? Is He not free to make His own choices? Does He have to limit His options based on us?
If there is enough evidence here to support the idea of falling away, there is enough to support the idea of not falling away as well. If your wife told you she loved you and cheated on you constantly, she would be revealing that she never loved you in the first place. Her commitment wasn’t genuine because her actions don’t support it. James says “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). If someone continues to disobey God, they probably never had a saving faith to begin with because that faith expresses itself by good deeds.
So, we cannot change our minds? Your wife can’t, on the day of your marriage, make a sincere and genuine commitment, but later be tempted and fall into sin? If she strays into adultery once, after years of faithful and fruitful marriage, does that then reveal that she never loved you in the first place? Does that indicate that her commitment was false the whole time? What about twice? Three times? How many times does it take before you declare that her commitment was never genuine, from the day of marriage? You are making faithfulness, fidelity, and commitment a binary state, just as you are doing with “salvation,” when really the human will is a complex and imperfect creature, complicated and corrupted by the effects of original sin. When Israel strayed from God, does that mean her love and commitment were never true to begin with? All the times God saved her — was she never really “saved”? All the times she turned away — do they reveal that she never really turned to God in the first place? It is the same with the Christian: there is no moment (as you yourself admit above) when we are suddenly, completely, irrevocably “saved,” when we have “saving faith” “to begin with” and are then beyond the possibility of straying. We must, just as a wife, constantly persist and persevere in that saving faith, in that fidelity to our husband, and let that faith bear good fruit. If we bear much good fruit, and then later fall away, as many Christians have, does that make all of our prior good fruits null? Do others then look back in revision and decide that all the apparently good fruit was either not good or not actually fruit? — that we were “never saved to begin with”?
Again, this is a fair question. My previous reply should have been more complete. Things are not always what they seem when it comes to others’ salvation. This means a Christian who “loses their salvation” may never have truly converted. Or it could mean that they are in Christ but are still being brought to repentance.
The second scenario applies to the unfaithful wife. Her previous faithfulness shows that she truly loves her husband. If she still belongs to him, there is hope for repentance and reconciliation. The same is true for Israel. They strayed and wandered from God, but they were still in covenant relationship with Him. This is also true for us. A Christian’s previous faithfulness may demonstrate that their conversion was genuine. This means they are in Christ. Because being in Christ is a completed binary state, there is still hope for repentance and reconciliation.
We should never be quick to declare that someone has lost their salvation or were never saved to begin with for precisely this reason. If their conversion was proved genuine by a changed lifestyle and good deeds, we can be confident the Holy Spirit will bring them to repentance.
I feel like I should have emphasized, too, that every one who falls away or sins receives abundant mercy, and that no sinner is beyond that. But can we really say that a Christian who has fallen away from Christ and denied Him, who is no longer bearing good fruit in love and in the Spirit (Matt 7:20, John 13:35, Gal 5:22-24), is “in Christ”? If someone has a genuine conversion to Christ, but then falls away and no longer follows Christ, is she nonetheless “in Christ”? Yes, we can pray that she will be brought to repentance — but what if she isn’t? What if she dies in her state of wandering? What if your adulterous wife never returns? This is the crucial question: is she saved anyway, because she was “in Christ,” or do we then discard all her prior good fruits and declare that she was “never saved to begin with”?
This could be an instance when someone genuinely “loses their salvation” or “falls away.” Throughout this series, I never denied this possibility. I said it “probably cannot” happen, but if it can, it should be regarded as rare and extreme.
I believe most (if not all) Christians will not lose their salvation. Anyone who seems to was probably never regenerated or is still being brought to repentance. This approach best balances the NT’s warnings with its promises and disclaimers, giving each their full weight and meaning.
Thank you, Zack. I have really appreciated you taking such a great amount of time to answer my question, but now I have another one. What exactly constitutes “falling away”? Is it a deliberate turning away from God and rejecting Him, or is it a careless life of ease and worldliness but still having a heart (somewhere in there) for God? Can it be considered “falling away” if a Christian struggles and perhaps even “flirts” with temptation for awhile, but never giving in to it fully? Always clinging to God yet “torn between the temptation and running from it altogether”? And could it also be considered “falling away” if a Christian gets put off with church and stops going for a few years, for example? I would like to know what you think about this too, if you have the time to work with me here. 🙂 God bless you and thank you, brother.
That’s a good question! The ambiguity is confusing, isn’t it? Give me a few days to think about it and I’ll get back to you.
Even faithful Christians struggle with sin — but as long as he is struggling, and not giving himself over to it, then I would say that he has not “fallen away.” Your statement — “a deliberate turning away from God and rejecting Him” — is pretty much exactly how I would describe “falling away”: but I would also say that engaging in sin, deliberately and conscious of its sinfulness, is a rejection of God to a greater or lesser degree. Only God can really be the judge of whether we are turning to Him or turned away, but I would say that the worldly Christian and the one who rejects fellowship with other believers are definitely placing themselves in a dangerous place, “living on the edge” where they can easily be knocked off. Faithfulness to the idea of God is not enough: if we reject and deliberately disobey His commands, understanding fully what we’re doing, then we are rejecting God.
By the way, I know I sound serious when I’m discussing, but I want you to know that I appreciate your efforts here and that you’re exploring these questions honestly. God bless you and His peace and grace be with you!
Thank you! I appreciate your comments as well. You are helping me clarify my thoughts by defending my position. Your work on this topic also seems impressive.
I hope for more meaningful dialogue between us in the future!
trying to keep this short- working on a book of my own. I’m of the mind set that yes, a christian can lose the salvation. Ezekiel 18 comes to mind. Romans 11 when Paul tells the people that the grafted branch [gentiles] can be as easily cut off as the natural branch [Jews].
Or if you take someone who is “saved” then for whatever reason he lives unrighteously, he won’t inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6) for if he does then it contradicts that verse.
5 But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God;
6 Who will render to every man according to his deeds:
7 To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life:
8 But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,
9 Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;
10 But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:
11 For there is no respect of persons with God.
Therefore, to be saved, one must love and be obedient to his word with faith – living a righteous life.
As you work on your book, bear in mind that answering this question is more complicated than quoting a few verses that support your position. I’ll admit there are Scriptures that seem to suggest a Christian can lose their salvation. But you have to admit there are others that seem to suggest they can’t. We cannot prefer one set of Scriptures over the other. We must give each their full weight and meaning.
As for the Scriptures you mentioned – Ezekiel 18:24 says, “If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered…he will die.” But what we’re asking is, “Is this even possible? Will God let this happen?”
Romans 11:22 says, “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” But will God indeed cut us off? Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:39 says, “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
1 Corinthians 6:9 asks, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?” Paul then lists the wicked and declares, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11).