Soteriology Series: Perseverance of the Saints / Eternal Security
Perseverance of the Saints / Eternal Security
Can true believers lose their salvation? There is considerable debate over this topic. Those who believe that believers can lose their salvation point to passages where it at least seems as though a believer has lost his or her salvation. For example, John 15:1-2, 6 says:
“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit… If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up.
Jesus is the vine and there are branches attached to him that bear fruit, which are pruned to bear more fruit, and there are branches that don’t bear fruit, which are taken away and thrown into the fire.
Clearly, the branches that bear fruit are true believers. But, are the ones that don’t bear fruit true believers? This is where people who love the Lord and his Word often come to different conclusions. Those who believe that true believers can lose their salvation take what is called an Arminian position. And those who believe that true believers can never lose their salvation take what is called a Reformed position.
When considering the branch thrown into the fire, both sides believe that some who profess Christ are not truly born again. In Matthew 7:21-23, we see this when Christ says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’
Also, when describing the kingdom of heaven in the Parable of the Virgins, Christ responded to the virgins without oil who called him, “Lord, Lord,” by saying, “I tell you the truth, I do not know you!” (Matt 25:11-12).
Some people profess Christ as Lord but are not truly following him and therefore are not saved. In Matthew 7:21-23, Christ distinguishes the false professions by patterns of rejecting and breaking God’s law, while true believers will have patterns of obedience (Matt 7:21). Certainly, even true believers fail at obeying God as well, but apparently, this will not be their pattern—their lifestyle. The apostle John teaches the same. First John 3:9-10 (ESV) says:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
John teaches that the one who is saved does not make “a practice of sinning” because God’s seed abides in him and keeps him from doing so. A true believer has a new nature that genuinely changes him (2 Cor 5:17). He will stumble and fall, often repeatedly, but he won’t be able to live a lifestyle of rebellion because of his new nature. Therefore, according to John, a professing believer who does not practice righteousness or love his brother (referring to other believers) as a lifestyle is not born of God (1 John 3:19).
Therefore, people who take the Reformed position would typically see the branch that does not bear fruit and is thrown into the flame (John 15:1-6) as somebody who professes Christ but is not truly born again. Some who don’t take the Arminian position believe the branch being destroyed by the fire refers to a believer losing eternal rewards (cf. 1 Cor 3:12-15) instead of an unregenerate believer experiencing eternal judgment; however, that view doesn’t seem to fit well with the branch being burned up entirely.
People with the Reformed position would typically take similar interpretations of other passages which at least seem to indicate that a believer could lose his or her salvation. The Arminian view would typically see them as referring to a person losing his salvation, while the Reformed would see them referring to a professing believer who is not truly saved (or possibly losing his or her eternal rewards).
Here is another major passage which prompts the discussion of whether a believer can lose his or her salvation. Hebrews 6:4-6 says,
For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt.
This passage is very difficult. The language used by the author at least appears to be used of someone who is born again. They have been “enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakes of the Holy Spirit, tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming” but have turned away from God by committing apostasy. Because of this, the author of Hebrews says, it is impossible for them to ever repent. Isn’t this a believer who now has forfeited salvation by turning away from God?
Again, those from Reformed traditions would say, “No.” This language could likewise be used of those Christ rebukes in Matthew 7:22-23:
On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’
They called Christ, “Lord,” prophesied, cast out demons, and did miracles but Christ said he never knew them. In fact, we have a perfect example of this in Judas—the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Judas was empowered by Christ to preach, cast out demons, and heal people—no doubt through the Holy Spirit. And yet, at the same time, Christ taught that Judas was never truly saved. Christ said all the disciples were “clean”—referring to being cleansed from sin—except for Judas (John 13:10-11). He said one of them was a “devil” (John 6:70) and that the one who would betray him was “destined for destruction” (John 17:12)—both referring to Judas. What was said in Hebrews 6:4-6 could be said of him: Judas had tasted of the heavenly gift, the Spirit, God’s Word, but never truly embraced them, eventually leading to apostasy, as he betrayed Christ. Soon after he repented, but not in a salvific way. He declared, “I have sinned … for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matt 27:4). By Judas’ continual exposure to God’s grace and his continual rejection of it, he had hardened his heart to the place of no return. It was impossible to truly renew his heart to repentance.
Again, those from an Arminian tradition would see a text like this and declare that the person had lost their salvation. However, those from a Reformed tradition would see it as referring to one with a profession who was not truly born again. In fact, those from Reformed traditions believe that those who are truly born again will always persevere in their faith and never ultimately turn away from God (Col 1:22-23, 1 John 2:19). If a professing believer turns away from God and never returns, then he was never born again.
Evidence for the Perseverance of the Saints
There are many evidences in Scripture that true saints will persevere. (1) For example, in Scripture there are promises that true believers will persevere: In John 8:31, Jesus said to the Judeans who had believed him, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples.” Jesus realized that many who believed in him weren’t truly his disciples and therefore weren’t saved (Matt 7:21-23, John 2:23-24). Thus, he said to them that continuing in his teachings was proof of true discipleship. Many in the church say a prayer of faith at a revival or retreat but then go away and live the same way they previously did. Continuing in Christ’s teaching is proof of true salvation.
Likewise, Paul said this in Colossians 1:22-23:
but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him—if indeed you remain in the faith, established and firm, without shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. This gospel has also been preached in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become its servant.
By using the conditional “if indeed,” Paul essentially said to the Colossian church that they had been reconciled (saved) by Christ’s death only if they remained in the faith by not turning from the gospel. In that early church period, Christians were being persecuted and ostracized for their faith, which caused many to turn away. Also, there was much false teaching, which led people away from Christ. Paul believed that only those who continued in the faith were truly born again. Christ taught the same thing. After describing the end times and how his disciples would be persecuted and killed for the faith and how there would be many false messiahs and false teachings, leading people to fall away from the faith, Christ said, “But the person who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13). Only those who persevere in the faith—regardless of persecution, false teaching, and other temptations—are truly saved.
(2) In addition, support that true believers will persevere in the faith is found in God’s promises to protect the salvation of believers. For example, John 10:28-30 says:
My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
Christ said that he gives his sheep “eternal life” and that they would “never perish.” The word “eternal” by definition is never-ending. Christ further emphasizes their gift of eternal life by saying “they will never perish.” If these sheep did perish, then his promise would not be true. Obviously, there are many promises in Scripture about eternal life that God gives those who repent and have faith in Christ (John 3:16, Romans 6:23, John 17:2, etc.). To further confirm Christ’s promise of eternal life to his sheep, he says that no one will be able to “snatch” them from his hand or his “Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). God keeps believers.
If this were not enough, Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit keeps believers eternally, as well. True believers have trinitarian protection. Ephesians 1:13-14 and 4:30 say this:
And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Like a seal on a bottle of water that protects the freshness of the water, the Holy Spirit protects believers till they are redeemed at Christ’s coming.
(3) Further evidence that no true believers will lose their salvation is God’s commission of Christ to complete the redemption of the elect—the ones God chose for salvation before time—and Christ’s inability to fail God. In John 6:38-40, Christ said:
For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. Now this is the will of the one who sent me—that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father—for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
God’s will is that Christ would save the elect—that none of them would be lost and that they would be resurrected on the last day. Is it possible that Jesus, the perfect Son of God, will fail to complete God’s purpose for him to save the elect? If Jesus failed at anything God called him to do, that would be a sin and cast doubt on his deity and ability to save anyone. This is why many believe the elect will persevere and none will be lost. Christ accomplished salvation in his death and resurrection, and he continues to keep the salvation of the elect in his high priestly ministry of prayer. Hebrews 7:25 says: “So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Christ’s prayers are effective and none of the elect, those who were chosen for salvation before time, will ever be lost.
(4) Finally, if the previous evidences were not enough, there are also a few theological arguments against believers’ being able to lose their salvation that must be considered. Daryl Aaron, author of Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day, said this:
The possibility of losing salvation due to any sin at all seems contrary to the clear biblical teaching regarding salvation by grace apart from works. If works have nothing to do with our salvation in the first place, how can works (in this case, sin) have anything to do with losing it? Further, the possibility of losing salvation due to sin seems to call into question the sufficiency of Christ’s death for all sin. If he died for all sin, then believers are forgiven of all sin, and no sin can ever jeopardize our salvation.
Though there are many Scriptures that at least seem to point to the possibility of true believers losing their salvation, when properly considered against the whole of Scripture, those seem to point false professions, which Christ taught would be common in his kingdom (cf. Matt 7:21-23, 25:11-12, Matt 13:36-43, 47-50).
What stood out most to you in the reading and why?
What are common Scriptural supports for the eternal security of believers?
What are common Scriptural supports for believers being able to lose their salvation?
Which view of eternal security do believe is correct and why?
What questions or applications did you take from the reading?
 The ESV Study Bible’s comments on John 15:6
 Aaron, Daryl. Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day: Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.