I find myself going to great lengths to avoid confrontations with fellow Christians. It’s absurd to think we can even have them amongst ourselves. Without taking proper care, some have even allowed non-essential issues to divide us. Last I checked with our Lord Jesus, the command to love one another for the world to see that indeed we are His children still remains (John 17:21). We should be truthful with each other no doubt, but in a gracious manner. Wish I’d stress that with every emphasis possible; gracious manner!There’s always going to be doctrinal issues we don’t entirely agree on. Didn’t even the apostles themselves hit a snag when they were faced with the issue of the Gentiles coming to faith? Some wanted them to be circumcised and some (Paul particularly) were not for Gentile circumcision.
How they handled the moment should always serve us when faced with such; they settled for the essential requirements of the faith. Other demands were unnecessary. The issue of whether when once saved we are always saved may be different from what they were faced with then, but it is by no means whatsoever bigger a deal to a Christian today than circumcision was to a Jew heading the Early Church. We have completely no reason to not see eye to eye for holding different opinions on this matter. One thing we all ought to appreciate is that we won’t always arrive to a conviction at the same time. We probably never received the gift of salvation at the same time. God is personal with how He deals with each of His children, and we need to respect that. At some point you will have a full revelation on a subject, and I may not yet be there. That will never mean I’m a lesser Christian.
If we can appreciate that, then we will treat each other with gentleness. If we are convinced that the conviction we have is from God, then we won’t shove it down the throats of others or insist on it every time (that draws suspicion of heresy or cultism). We will simply trust Him to teach them too just like He taught us. After all, we can never desire for God’s people to have His full truth more than He desires that Himself. So there’s just no way we can outmatch Him at having an urgency for people to learn His truth. Are we even able to convict others? Of course no. Then we should never unpleasantly persist, but simply explain our opinions with gentleness and let God in His time to work.
Back to our subject; once saved always saved. There’s many a doctrine I usually find myself along the edge whenever a discussion on them arises. One such is predestination. Sometimes it makes more sense that God already has His elect, but other times the thought that He could have created some purposely for destruction doesn’t reconcile. I’m not settled on either, and I may die having never. But I’m confident that doesn’t affect whether I go to heaven or not. Concerning our subject though, I have found it relatively easy to belong to a side. I don’t believe that once we are saved we are always going to be. I genuinely believe people can backslide and fall from the faith. Kindly do not stop reading here if you don’t share my belief. Grace/gentleness is not only needed when you are sharing your conviction, it’s needed even more when you are hearing another person’s opinion.
How I wish to defend my belief is by addressing the faults I find with the contrary belief that once we are saved then that’s it. And I am asking all of us to be most honest and rid ourselves of every bias we might come to this with. This doctrine is not originated from anywhere but from the Bible, and so we need to go back to the Bible itself and have it teach us. If we can faithfully stick to how scripture should be interpreted, then am sure we can hear truth from it and avoid speaking into it our preconceptions. I will give a few verses foundational to this teaching and have us examine them.
John 17:12 – none has been lost except the one doomed to destruction (also the son of perdition – KJV) so that scripture would be fulfilled. (NIV)
I have often heard proponents of this doctrine use this verse. Their argument is that Jesus tells His Father that He has lost none of us whom God gave Him. While this may seem true, this argument seriously fails to be consistent with what the actual interpretation should be. In almost the entire John 17 (from verse 6 – 19), Jesus wasn’t referring to every Christian that would join the faith but to the disciples He had at the time. When He says “they have kept your word” – vs. 6, He couldn’t have meant us. We cannot fit that description because we hadn’t existed then and so couldn’t have been proved faithful with keeping the word.
The tense that Jesus uses is past tense, for example 17:12 starts, “while I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe….”. He was obviously referring to His disciples whom He had been with. That’s why it makes sense that the only exception He quoted was Judas who had been one among the disciples. If we are to be faithful to context, something that made reference to someone in the past can in no way make reference also to we who would be born centuries later. To us in the present, it can only be contextually relevant. The exact words do not apply to us, but the principle does. And so it’s the principle that we should go for.
Hence the verse above in no way qualifies as a legitimate support for such a doctrinal claim. It only referred to a few select disciples at the time, not Christians universally.
1 John 2:19 – for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us (NIV)
Whenever a question arises of those who had once been believers among us but at some point stopped, this verse has been perhaps the most quoted by those who believe that once we are saved then we always are. The argument is that they were never really saved after all. “You cannot be saved and then again become a sinner,” they argue. Again, we need to avoid literal application but first go for the literal interpretation then apply it to our context today.
To John’s audience then, the people he is warning them about are those he calls the anti-Christ. They knew that he would be coming, but now he warns them that many actually had already come – vs. 18a. In describing them he says “they went out from us”. That pronoun ‘us’ must have communicated the group of disciples at the time. Now if Timmy today should walk away from the faith, he cannot be in any way the anti-Christ referred to here nor have been a part of that early century fellowship of believers. The description would be horribly inaccurate of him.
I do not have clear cultural background of that time, but there must have been individuals who denied the faith but pretended to be one with the believers. As you should well know, the Gospel at that time was facing intense persecution and so it wouldn’t be surprising that some who opposed the disciples joined them as infiltrants. They hoped to destroy them from within by teaching false doctrine. These would never have been saved before. This description cannot therefore be applied to one who has been genuinely saved. Though there’s a principle we can draw that helps us to be watchful of whom we believe, even among us.
John 10:27-28; – My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
This usually is the best line of argument for proponents of once saved always saved. We cannot argue that the term sheep there refers to only a select few of Christ’s disciples. It must refer to Christians universally, because earlier in verse 16 He talks about these other sheep (would be non-Jewish Christians like you and me) that He also must bring to His fold. So when He assures that He gives us eternal life and no one can snatch us from His hands, He means every word of it and we can’t argue against that. But that doesn’t mean we should be quick to assume that He is suggesting once we are saved then we always will be.
Such a rush will have ignored two important things. First, a clause in that very same verse which seems to suggest how we are to remain saved; by a continued walk with God – “and they follow me.” Failing to factor in this will often lead to the kind of dreadful behavior of taking God’s grace in vain and deliberately sinning coz we are saved after all. Secondly, since the verse makes reference to not just Christians in a particular time or culture but all Christians universally, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a stand-alone verse. Instead it should be examined in light of all other scriptures that also address the issue of how we should remain in faith. I’ll mention a few as we close.
A question will arise; “how then can we teach of the assurance of salvation if we say that one moment you can be saved and another you can lose it? Is Jesus even a savior to begin with if He can’t keep those He has already saved?”
This final argument too, as convincing as it may always feel and genuine in its desire to have us assured of our salvation, has terrible flaws. The problem that I believe gives rise to it is a misunderstanding of what salvation really is. And without the complete understanding of what salvation is, you are vulnerable to also misunderstand what its assurance should mean. The error comes with thinking of salvation as an event; either whatever happened during crucifixion, or the moment someone made a decision to be saved. If our assurance is founded on either of these two events, the former I must say its work was complete and we can add nothing to it, then we are justified to believe that once we are saved then we will always be.
But salvation is more. Crucifixion was a climactic part of it and should not be confused for the entire thing. That may draw protests, but think about this; would there still be salvation had Jesus not resurrected? That answered, SALVATION IS NOT THE EVENT THAT HAPPENED ON THE CROSS, NEITHER IS IT THE DECISION WE MADE WHEN WE GAVE OUR LIVES TO CHRIST, IT IS THE PERSON OF THE CHRIST! What was done at the Cross was great, but for our assurance of salvation we should look beyond that. We should look to the person who did it. He is our assurance. So when He says nobody can snatch us from His hands, He is not suggesting we cannot turn from following Him, He is simply saying He cannot cease being to us what He has always been. Hence the right assurance of salvation will not convince us that we cannot lose our faith, but instead will encourage us to pursue Christ even more desperately so that we can continue in the faith.
In the book of Romans from verse 8 – 15, Paul draws a progressive picture of how we all come to the Gospel. My particular interest is how we receive the message. He says that with our mouths we confess (calling out to God) and with our hearts believe Jesus to be Lord (10:9). However much we would like to believe otherwise, there is a clear human factor to salvation. I’m not suggesting that we in any sense contribute to salvation. We know that is the work of grace. But we have a responsibility to accept the gift. God doesn’t force it on us to accept it, He only avails grace for us to willingly take it. To remain in the faith, this willingness to continue in obedience is our end of the bargain. Failure to will and to act on the will is what I believe leads to backsliding. Falling back doesn’t mean that God was unable to keep us, but that we were unwilling to continue in His ways.
Such faint hearts are what Hebrews 6:4-6 warns us against being. We may have been enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, been made partakers of the Holy Ghost, tasted of the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come – a perfect description of a true Christian, but if we fall away, it will be impossible to renew us unto repentance; seeing we crucify to ourselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame! (KJV).
If even after reading this you still aren’t convinced and wish to retain your opposing opinion, it is fine. You are no less a Christian than I, nor greater. Just make sure that whatever you uphold and teach gives no room to sinning because ‘grace already did it and we can never lose our salvation.’ That is the temptation most like you will fall to. For you who might share my view, be careful not to become legalistic and qualify salvation with works. That is our temptation. To all of us, let’s return back to the essentials. The command is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and TEACHING THEM TO OBEY ALL THAT JESUS HAS COMMANDED (Mt 28:19-20). If we focus on this, to teach Jesus’ disciples His commands so that they wholly love God and love fellow men as themselves (Deut 5), we will not even remember we had this discussion.
Actually, those fierce debates we’ve had are a sign that we have lost view of our priority assignment. And I wrote this to call us back to our primary focus. The least important question is whether once we are saved are we always saved? What we should be asking is, “Now that we are saved, how ought we to live to please God?”