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Is a Christian “Once Saved Always Saved”?
By Dr. Richard P. Bucher
Is it possible to fall from grace? Can one who truly has saving faith in Jesus at one point in his life, lose his salvation and die in an unsaved condition? Or are all true Christians "once saved always saved?"
Each of these questions addresses the same inherent question: Can a saved Christian lose his salvation? (For the sake of simplicity I will henceforth refer to this as "falling away.") About this there is much disagreement in the Christian community. 'Those who have been influenced by Calvinism say emphatically "No!" Those persuaded by Lutheranism say "Yes!" And both groups turn to the Bible to support their positions. How can this be
The discrepancy lies in the fact that the Bible has two seemingly contradictory teachings on the subject. On the one hand, the Scriptures clearly teach that it is possible for a true believer to lose his salvation. On the other hand the same Scriptures promise that God will preserve true believers in His grace from beginning to end. Both teachings must be further explored.
I. It is Possible to Fall Away
The Scriptures clearly teach that it is possible for the believer to fall from saving grace and lose his faith. This conclusion we draw both from clear passages of Scripture that warn against such a falling away and from examples of it happening.
Warnings Against Falling Away
There are two sets of Bible passages that speak of falling away. First, there are those which directly warn against such a thing happening to believers.
One example is Galatians 5:4: 'You are separated from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by Law, you have fallen from grace." Paul had taught the true Gospel to the Galatians. They had joyfully received that Gospel and became Christians, not by appearance but in actuality. They were justified by faith, received the Holy Spirit, and miracles were performed in their midst (See Galatians 3:1-5). They were Christians in every sense of the word. But to these who had once been Christians Paul now says, "You have fallen from grace " and 'you are separated from Christ" if you attempt to be justified by the Law. What else can this mean but that they who had been true believers were in danger of falling away, of no longer being Christians. If falling away permanently is an impossibility then Paul's words have no meaning and his very real concern is misplaced.
A second example is Luke 8:13. In this passage Jesus is explaining the meaning of the Parable of the Sower, specifically the meaning of the second soil. Our Lord says, "But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the Word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away." Here Jesus says, unmistakably, that it is possible for someone to receive the Gospel, truly believe for a while, but then fall away, because of temptation. To those who try to say that such people were never really Christian, Jesus words disagree. He says in clear words, that they 'believe for a while " and then 'fall away ". One cannot fall away (the Greek Word here is "aphistemi") from something that one wasn't truly a part of to begin with.
That you may understand that these passages are not isolated occurrences read also the following passages and the context which surrounds each: I Corinthians 10:12; 1 Timothy 1:18-20; Hebrews 4:11; Hebrews 12:15; 2 Peter 3:17.
Only If You Endure to the End
The second set of Bible passages that speak of falling away are statements which say that only those will be finally saved who continue to believe until the end.
Examples of this abound. In Matthew 10:22 Jesus says to His disciples, "But he who endures to the end will be saved." Our Lord repeats the same teaching in his end of the world discourse in Mark 13:13. If these statements do not admit the possibility of falling away then what do they mean? If it is impossible to fall away permanently, these statements would have no meaning. Why would Jesus even have to say them? The context makes clear that it is a warning.
Paul teaches the same thing in his letter to the Colossians 1:21-23:
And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and irreproachable in His sight,- if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the Gospel which you heard.
In another place the author of Hebrews says, "but Christ is a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end' (Heb. 3:6). Later in the same chapter he writes,
Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end (Hebrews 3:12-14).
Clearly, each of these passages teach the same thing. (1) You are believers now; (2) But falling away is a very real possibility, so be careful; (3) For only those who continue to believe the Gospel until the end will be partakers of Christ for eternity. As was said above, if falling away is impossible for true Christians, then each author of these epistles, and yes, the Holy Spirit Himself, was very foolish in issuing such warnings. And this is something that we would never want to say! Thus, the Scriptures make plain that it is very possible to fall away from true faith. This, in fact, has been the teaching of the Christian Church down through the centuries, who called this falling away "apostasy" (see 2 Thessalonians 2).
What Causes Such Falling Away?
If, then, falling away is possible, what causes it according to Scripture? Technically speaking, only unbelief, that is, not believing in Jesus damns (cf. John 3:18,36; Mark 16:16). However, the New Testament itself further nuances this. An analysis of the New Testament data reveals that both (1) rejecting the Gospel and (2) living in sin unrepentantly lead to falling away from the faith.
Rejecting the Gospel, in New Testament terms, can mean either (1a) putting one's trust in persons or works of the Law in addition to Jesus Christ or (1b) a total repudiation of Jesus and the Christian faith, and (1c) rejecting an essential doctrine of the Gospel. An example of (1a) was the Galatian congregation already mentioned. They, who had been taught to trust only in Jesus for their salvation were beginning to trust in the works of the Law (i.e., circumcision) in addition to Jesus. Paul rightly pointed out that to do so meant to fall from grace. So also in our day, any Christian who begins to trust in their own performance or someone or something else in addition to Christ has fallen away.
(1b) above refers to the person who formally and consciously leaves the Christian faith. A Biblical example of this is probably those to whom the letter to the Hebrews was written. Many scholars believe that the epistle to the Hebrews was written as a stern warning to Hebrew Christians who were on the verge of returning to Judaism. Demas, "who having loved this present world" deserted Paul and returned to Thessalonica, is probably another example (2 Timothy 4:10). So is Judas Iscariot.
An example of (1c) is those who denied the resurrection, such as "Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some (see also 1 Timothy 1:19-20). Some among the Corinthians were also rejecting the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-14).
An traditional example of living in sin unrepentantly (2) has been King David, who committed murder and adultery and thus fell away from the faith (Read 2 Samuel 11 and 12; Psalm 51). About this third cause Martin Luther once wrote:
It is therefore necessary to know and to teach that when holy people, aside from the fact that they still possess and feel original sin and daily repent and strive against it, fall into open sin (as David fell into adultery, murder, and blasphemy), faith and the Spirit have departed from them. This is so because the Holy Spirit does not permit sin to rule and gain the upper hand in such a way that sin is committed, but the Holy Spirit represses and restrains it so that it does not do what it wishes. If sin does what it wishes, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present, for St. John says, 'No one born of God commits sin' (Smalcald Articles III.3.43-45).
All Christians sin daily and will do so until death, as John himself says in I John 1:8. The sin that John speaks of in the quotation above (1 John 3:9) is the sin that is continued in without repentance. When such unrepentant sin occurs (whether it be adultery and murder or neglect of the Word and Sacrament, living together outside of marriage, etc.) faith eventually dies and Hebrews 10:26-27 applies.
Another example is our Lord's "Steps of Discipline" in Matthew 18:15-18:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen [to you], take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Notice: Christ is speaking about a fellow Christian (i.e., a "brother") who sins and then refuses to repent. Ultimately, if this erring brother does not "listen" he is to be treated as a "Gentile" and "tax collector," in other words, as a non-Christian (see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
One final note in this section. Though it is true that rejecting the Gospel and living in sin impenitently cause one to fall away, these causes happen more easily within certain contexts. Such as? Such as persecution (Matthew 24:9-10; Luke 8:13), false doctrine (1 Timothy 4:1: "in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demon"), or neglect. (Hebrews 2:3:"how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?"). Christian history is littered with the sorry examples of Christians who fell away from their faith in the face of persecution, who fell tragically through false doctrine, and who fell unknowingly through neglect of the preached Word and Sacrament, worship, and the body of Christ. Persecution, false doctrine, and neglect don't actually cause apostasy. But they create a climate in which falling away can easily happen.
Can the Fallen Away Return?
Of vital concern is this question: "Is it possible for someone who has fallen away from faith to repent and become saved again? If the Gospel is the Gospel, YES! According to the Word of God, there is only one unforgivable sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28: "Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men . . ."). Falling away from true faith in not unforgivable! Christ has died for that sin too. Any person who truly repents of his sin will be saved once again. And what is repentance? Simply this: (1)To acknowledge your sin and turn away from it; (2)To believe that Jesus' atoning life and death forgave all your sins, including the one you currently feel guilty about (see 1 John 1:8 - 2:2)!
Why do we stress this so vigorously? Out of brotherly concern. We are concerned that our fellow Christians who reject the possibility of falling away are inviting targets for Satan's attacks. It is for good reason that Paul warns us to put on the full armor of God to fight the devil; it is for good reason that Peter warns us "be sober, vigilant, for your adversary, the devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (Ephesians 6:10-17; 1 Peter 5:8).
The Scriptures warn us of the devil because his goal is to steal away our salvation (John 10:10a; Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4; Acts 26:17-18). He not only wants to cause us a little discomfort, He wants to "devour" us. Those who naively assume that it is impossible for such a thing to happen to them, even if they are neglecting the Word, the Sacrament, and prayer, are left wide open for a faith stealing assault.
II. God has Promised to Preserve our Faith
So the Word of God makes it abundantly clear that falling away is possible for the true believer. Yet alongside this first teaching is a second one, just as Scriptural, and just as true. The Bible clearly teaches that God has promised to preserve our faith from beginning to end.
Many passages could be chosen; here are a a few. In John 10:27-29 Jesus says,
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give 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 the Father's hand.
In much the same way Paul writes to the Philippian believers: "being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). And the Corinthian Christians are promised, '[Christ] will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord' (I Co. 1:8-9). Finally, one of the most moving passages in all of Scripture:
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).
Each of these passages categorically declare that God will keep those who trust in Jesus in the true faith until the end; and that nothing in all of creation shall stop that from happening. The passages above, and others like them, are God's unconditional promises to all true Christians that they will be preserved in saving grace until they go home to heaven.
So there you have it. On the one hand, Scripture clearly teaches that it is possible for the believer to fall away from faith -- even permanently. On the other hand, Scripture teaches just as clearly that God has promised to preserve us in saving grace to the very end: nothing shall separate us from His love. What are we to do? The two teachings appear to contradict each other.
We are to believe them both. We are to take those passages very seriously that say it is possible for us to fall way. And we are to take those passages very seriously which say that God will not allow us to fall away.
Does Scripture contradict itself, then? No. The mystery is dispelled when we realize that each of these teachings is to be directed at completely different men. The first teaching, that of falling away, is stern Law intended for our Old Man, our sinful flesh that wants nothing to do with God (Galatians 5:17-21; Ephesians 4:22). It is for that part of us that cheapens God's grace, that doesn't fear Him, that is lazy, that talks the faith but doesn't live it, and that loves sin. The first teaching is meant to be a stem warning to our Old Man, lest he drown us in carnal security.
The second teaching, in which God promises to preserve us eternally, is for our New Man (Galatians 5:17, 22f.; Ephesians 4:24). The New Man is who we are in Christ Jesus, our new identity as forgiven sinners, saints and children of God - the real us. It is that part of us which loves God, and delights in doing all that pleases Him. The New Man is that part of us which is sickened by sin, grieves when we do sin, and which longs for our heavenly home. The second teaching is pure Gospel. It is meant to be the sweetest comfort and encouragement to our New Man, lest He be overcome by the doubts of the flesh.
Both teachings are God's Word. Both teachings are true. Both teachings are needed. Both teachings must be taught in Christ's Church.
It is instructive to note that the Apostle Paul applied both teachings to himself. The same Paul that could triumphantly state that he was convinced that nothing in all creation "shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39), could also write, "Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Cor. 9:26-27). By these latter words Paul freedly admitted the possibility that even he, the great Apostle, could "be disqualified," that is, fall away. This motivated him to mortify the sinful flesh and to strive with all his might to be faithful in Christ. Was Paul contradicting himself? Hardly. Rather, he was doing what all Christians should do. He was applying the teaching of the Law (which warned against falling away) to his old man, and he was applying to the teaching of the Gospel (which promised that God would preserve him) to the new man. In the final analysis, Paul knew that he was saved by God's grace, from beginning to end, as are we. He trusted in God's grace alone, not in his strivings or mortifications. But he also realized that he still had the sinful flesh, and as a result, needed to strive against it.
Finally, what is the answer to the question, "Are true Christians once saved always saved?" When speaking to the Old Man, when speaking to the one who is carnally secure, who neglects all that is Christian, yet still claims the title Christian for himself, the clear answer is, "NO!" It is very possible to permanently fall away from saving faith, and you are in danger of doing so! But when speaking to the New Man, when speaking to the one who struggles with sin, but humbly trusts in the Savior alone, who realizes that His worth, his state of grace and forgiveness, and his citizenship in heaven depend only on the Savior's merits, yet who knows the weakness of the flesh and wonders if he'll make it, the unmistakable answer is "YES! Though you are weak, though you stumble, though you sin, nothing shall ever separate you from God's love in Christ Jesus. He is faithful and He will confirm you to the end! Amen!"
Revised February, 1998