Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

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Once saved, are you saved forever?

The purpose of this paper is to present a biblical and theological discussion of the highly debated and controversial topic of eternal security. Eternal security is the doctrine that once a person has become a Christian, they are Christian permanently and cannot slip out of salvation. There are varying theological positions, such as the Calvinist ‘Perseverance of the Saints’ (though many argue for the ‘Preservation of the Saints’), or ‘Once Saved, Always Saved,’ largely held by Reformed and Presbyterian traditions to varying degrees; or the belief that a Christian can, in fact, lose their salvation, held largely by Arminian, Wesleyan and Methodist traditions.

However, this paper is not a debate over tradition. When approaching any biblical interpretation, a presupposed theological bias will inevitably result in distorted exegesis and hermeneutics. Any systematic theology must be formed as a result of biblical interpretation, not vice versa. It is vital to avoid eisegesis. This does not disqualify the importance of systematic theology, but rather stresses the importance of correct order and methodology. Hence, this paper begins with a survey (albeit brief and certainly not exhaustive) of the relevant biblical material.[1]

Old Testament

A central theological theme in the Old Testament is that of covenant. The covenantal connotations pertinent to this discussion lie in, firstly, the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12-17) wherein Yahweh promised to build a nation out of Abraham’s descendants, and secondly, the Mosaic covenant wherein this nation would be blessed if she is obedient to the Torah or cursed if she is disobedient (Exod. 19-24). But above all is the promise that Yahweh would never leave, nor forsake Israel (Deu. 31).

Isaiah 54

This is like the days of Noah to me: just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (9-10)

vv. 1-17 of this chapter begin with a discussion on abandonment and loss, then leads to the sorrowful recognition that Yahweh had turned his face from them (v. 7), before recounting his oath made to Noah. God is shown as agent and source of transformation, whose covenant is more reliable than creation itself.

Jeremiah 14

Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake; our apostasies indeed are many, and we have sinned against you. O hope of Israel, its saviour in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveller turning aside for night? Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us! Thus says the Lord concerning the people: Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the Lord does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.

In the previous chapter Yahweh was threatening to ruin Judah and in this case it seems he is doing so through drought. And so they cry out to him, but their request – “act…for your name’s sake” – was a challenge against his character. They had it wrong, however, for this was a covenantal curse and thus it was the responsibility of Judah who needed to act. And so no assurance of salvation was offered. In fact, Yahweh then warned Jeremiah to not even pray for the people.[2] Not only had Israel wandered, but they enjoyed wandering, and so Yahweh would destroy them.[3]

 

These two passages are a snap shot of the Old Testament promises to the prophets of Israel regarding the fulfilment of the covenant. The former reveals that Yahweh did turn his face from the people in their time of sin, but then reassures them that it will never happen again; the latter reveals Yahweh’s justice, for the people sinned and, as was promised, punishment was given.

Many times these passages are used to argue either for or against the doctrine of eternal security, depending on how one interprets them. However, Old Testament texts such as these are irrelevant in the discussion. The covenants prior to Christ were entirely different to the Christocentric, New Testament covenant, as discussed above. Obedience led to blessing whereas disobedience led to cursing. Furthermore, Hebrew tradition focused predominately on a corporate context, rather than individuals. The covenant regarded ethnic Israel as object of Yahweh’s love, whom he would never forsake, rather than the individual Israelite.

Hence, texts commonly used in support of eternal security that are taken from the Old Testament are quite often taken out of context purely for the reason that the context is generally in relation to the Mosaic covenant of blessing/curses. From a New Testament perspective, Jesus has promised never to forsake his Church. He has promised to be with his Body and protect it from the gates of hell. But this cannot be immediately related to the individual Christian, just as the Mosaic covenant cannot be immediately related to the individual Israelite. In other words, the Old Testament covenants should not be used to support eternal security arguments, for they refer primarily to the corporate, whereas the issue at hand relates primarily to the individual.

Christ came to spread salvation beyond the property of Israel; the Gentiles were now a part of the family. As the Gospel spread it became evident that it was now about far more than just an ethnic group, for other people groups were now grafted onto God’s people. Hence there was more concern surrounding the issue of individual salvation, as opposed to corporate salvation. It is to these texts we now turn.

Matthew Texts

There is very little reference to eternal security in the synoptic gospels. The Johannine literature has an abundance of predestinarian theology, including eternal security, but interestingly there isn’t such an abundance in the synoptics. However, Matthew’s gospel does contain several references to this issue, which we’ll now look at.

Matthew 7

“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (19, 21-23)

The people Jesus is talking about in this passage are clearly people who at least thought they were Christians. And why shouldn’t they think they are Christians? Their list of credentials are impressive! I would be very happy to be able to say Jesus, “Look, Lord, at what I have done: prophesying, exorcisms, demonstrating your power!” But still Jesus says, “I never knew you.”[4] However, Jesus is here is pointing to a more important theme than outward actions. He is saying that more important than anything we could possibly do, even actions as impressive as this list, is to know our Lord Jesus Christ, implying a deep, intimate relationship. If we do not have this intimacy with Christ it does not matter what we do in his name. For Christ cares more for relationship than showmanship. Hence I do not believe this passage should be used, as has been used, to argue against eternal security. The emphasis of this passage, as with its surrounding context (Sermon on the Mount), is less about individual actions and more about the state of the heart. The question still remains however: can non-Christians do impressive acts such for Christ, such as prophesying, driving out demons, etc.?

Matthew 18

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that any of these little ones should be lost.” (10-14)

This passage seems to make it very clear that God will not allow any to follow away. He is the Good Shepherd and will protect us. Should we stray, he will come after us and bring us back into the flock. Why? Because the Father would hate to see us be lost. However, I don’t think this passage should be used to argue for eternal security. The implication in this passage is the sheep was lost out of mere ignorance. It lost its step and fell away, because it didn’t know any better. We don’t know why the sheep was lost, perhaps it couldn’t hear the voice of the shepherd, perhaps it got distracted and went in a direction it wasn’t supposed to go, or perhaps it found a piece of particularly delicious grass and the flock moved on without it. Hence, the passage implies that God will not allow any of his sheep to fall away as a result of ignorance – this, then, doesn’t rule out the possibility of deliberately turning away from the shepherd.

Pauline Theology

A great deal of predestinarian theology comes from the Pauline corpus, which invariably is linked with the doctrine of eternal security. The great difficulty of Pauline theology of placing the particular epistle within its context, and placing the particular passage within its broader argument. One cannot simply read Galatians as though it were meant for the Colossians, nor the Corinthian correspondence as though it were meant for Timothy. The theology breadth, depth and variation of argument and themes within the Pauline corpus are vast and intimidating; it is only possible to understand the Pauline argument within their particular context.[5]

Romans 2, 10

For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (2:6-8)

For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (10:10)

These two passages essentially deal with the same issue: how one receives salvation. And they both a) place some responsibility on the individual, and b) imply an ongoing and continuous activity. Firstly, those whom God will justify and give eternal life must “by patiently doing good…seek for glory and honour and immortality,” and “believes with the heart and…confesses with the mouth.” Yet this does not imply a work-based salvation, rather it argues justification comes solely through believing, not works. Secondly, the implication is that salvation is a process. In 10.10 Paul makes a distinction between justification and salvation. Of course, this is more of a literary device than a precise dogmatic soteriological statement; to be justified is to be saved, and to be saved is justified.[6] Yet he seems to be making a distinction between a once of justification and an ongoing sanctification, similar to the idea of “patiently doing good.” Those who will be saved are those who patiently endure.[7]

Romans 8

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (38-39)

The central issue in this passage is the protective nature and vast love of God. God loves us so much he will protect us from anything that comes our away. Of course this protection pertains to our spiritual wellbeing, rather than to our physical bodies; there is nothing so powerful that can overcome God’s love for us. It has been argued that this passage reveals that we are protected even from our own will. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even us! This, I believe, is an unsatisfactory argument, for the passage says nothing about us and everything about God’s love.[8] Paul is emphasizing God’s great love for us, similar to Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Sons. To argue that this passage means we cannot wilfully leave the protective love of God is eisegesis, nor does it mean, however, that we can leave God’s protective love, for that is not the purpose of this passage.

1 Corinthians 15

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. (1-2)

The function of this ­­­chapter is to correct those Christians who have gone astray. Some have argued against the physical resurrection of Jesus, and Paul, in this chapter, says that the resurrection is, in fact, vital for salvation. But here it implies that salvation is an ongoing action. He says the Corinthians are “being saved,” and then he uses the biggest theological word in the Christian language: “if.” Salvation comes, thus, if the Corinthians would hold firm to his teaching. Notice the ordering of this: Paul is not saying, “You are saved, so you will now stand,” rather he is saying, “Stand so that you will be saved.”

Ephesians 2

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (8-9)

This passage is fairly self-explanatory: Humans cannot possibly save themselves; it is only by the grace of God, his gift to us, that we can be saved. This is relevant to the discussion because a common argument against the Arminian/Wesleyan/Methodist position – that it is possible to lose salvation – is that this becomes a work-based soteriology. However, this is an incorrect assumption. The bible is extremely clear on the fact that humans cannot save themselves, and the Arminian position does not deny this. It is possible to reject the doctrine of eternal security and still place God and God alone as the source of salvation. Cf. James 2.24.

Philippians 1

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (6, 9-11)

Throughout Philippians there is tension between human and divine activity. According to Silva,

A point often ignored by commentators yet fundamental to this epistle [is] the tension that exists between the believers’ accountability for their own spiritual conduct and their need to rely totally on God’s grace to meet that obligation.[9]

That God will finish what he started is quite a clear indication of God’s activity, particularly in regard to internal sanctification. However, later the Philippians are urged to work out their own salvation in Christ (2.12). The implication is that God is doing something, but it will efficacious only when the Philippians allow it to be. They must work out this salvation for themselves.

1 Timothy 4

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. (1-2)

This passage is fairly straightforward: some will renounce Christianity, turning to “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” This is a very scary thought, that there are some who follow the teachings of demons. However, this passage is neither an assertion for or against eternal security, for there is no mention of whether those who renounce the faith were previously Christians or not. For all we know, this passage is warning us against atheism, or any other religion for that matter.

2 Timothy 2

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself. (10-13)

The immediate thing that jumps out of this passage is the number of times “if” appears.


[1] Texts taken from the NRSV.

[2] Just as a sidenote, this a very interesting commandment. Why should Yahweh care if, and for what or whom, Jeremiah prays, if Yahweh had already made up his mind? The implication is that Jeremiah could indeed persuade Yahweh to change his mind.

[3] On a pastoral note, Yahweh then declared that the teachers were prophesying lies, leading the people astray. What struck me was the responsibility that is placed on those who preach the Word of God. Today, are we leading our people astray, or are we leading them toward righteousness? We are warned several times throughout the scriptures that leaders will need to give an account for what they have said and done, and will be responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of those we lead – tough words! Of course, God is a just and merciful God, but the bible places a lot of responsibility on church leaders!

[4] This is reminiscent of Jeremiah 9, where Yahweh is bringing justice upon Israel because “‘they refused to know me’ says the Lord,” (v. 6) which is probably one of the saddest things the bible records God of saying.

[5] This is, of course, required of any aspect of biblical interpretation. Accurate exegesis will never neglect context. The reason I stress this point is that far too many interpreters read Paul as though the epistles are 20 minutes old, written specifically to the Baptists in Western Australia, or the Evangelicals in the United States, in such a way that the epistles are amalgamated into one, rather than appreciating the texts as thousands of years old, written to specific groups of people that no longer exist with traditions that would seem alien to us, in a language not even spoken any more, paying close attention to the particular, specific and nuanced arguments of the individual epistles.

[6] I would probably argue that this a good example of how Paul argues for both a propitiatory and expiatory atonement.

[7] Scot McKnight’s book, The King Jesus Gospel, deals with this issue in great depth and well worth a read. His essential argument is that the mantra “justification by faith alone” has destroyed any need for an understanding of the broader narrative of Israel, which culminates only in the eschaton. God’s story has not finished, he argues, but will finish at the general resurrection. This is similar to Bonhoeffer’s ‘Costly Grace.’ I think I am inclined to agree.

[8] Of course, in saying that God loves us, Paul is indeed saying a huge amount about us. God loves us and so we are of infinite worth to him. However, the focus of the passage is entirely on God.

[9] Moisés Silva. Philippians (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005). 45.

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