Can believers lose their salvation? According to the doctrine called the perseverance of the saints, also known as eternal security or “once saved, always saved,” the answer is no. The saints are guaranteed by God to persevere to the end, and therefore, they will be saved. They cannot and they will not lose their salvation.
New Testament Assurance: Christ’s Sheep are Secure
In John 10, Jesus emphatically states that his sheep are secure.
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. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (vv. 27–30)
“They shall never perish” sounds emphatic and provides believers with incredible security. Romans 8 contains another passage that emphasizes the security of God’s people.
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (vv. 29–30)
In that passage, Paul places the verbs in the past tense because from God’s perspective the process is completed. God’s people are glorified. They have already made it to the finish line.
New Testament Warnings: We Must Continue in the Faith
But the doctrine of eternal security is debated by sincere believers because other Scriptures seem to indicate that saints can fall away and lose their eternal inheritance. Note the stern warnings and conditional if clauses in the following passages: John 15:6; Rom 11:17–22; 1 Cor 15:1–2; Gal 5:2–4; Col 1:22–23; Heb 3:6; 3:14; 6:4–6; 2 Pet 2:1; 2 Pet 2:20–22. For example,
- 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 (Rom 11:22),
- You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (Gal 5:4), and
- We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end (Heb 3:14).
Can We Reconcile Assurance and Warning Statements?
So here’s the data: The New Testament contains incredible assurances and strong warnings. And here’s the dilemma: How do we reconcile the two? If we are fully secure, how can we lose what we have? And if we are warned of the danger of losing what we have, how can we be fully secure?
Proponents of eternal security find a way forward by using 1 John 2:19, which states,
They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us (1 Jn 2:19).
In other words, those who abandoned the faith were not genuinely saved in the first place so the “once saved” part of the phrase “once saved, always saved” cannot be granted. Christ’s sheep are secure, but they were not really his sheep. Thus the warnings are not real possibilities for genuine believers. You can see how this debate can go back and forth on point A without progressing to point B.
On the other hand, those who think believers can lose their salvation say that the New Testament warnings are written to believers. And the natural way to read a warning is to assume that the stated peril is real. How else do you read a warning label on a bottle of medicine?
The Danger of Overemphasis
Can you see a way of fully affirming both the assurance statements and the warning statements? Since it’s difficult to reconcile the two, some emphasize the warnings, while others emphasize the assurances. But there’s a danger of overemphasizing either side.
On the assurance side, we may become complacent and think, “I’m saved, I don’t need to worry about anything else.”
On the warning side, we may live in fear and insecurity.
God doesn’t want us to be complacent or fearful.
There are a number of things that make this a difficult topic.
- The controversy is centered on the phrase “lose my salvation” or “lose one’s salvation,” but the Bible doesn’t use that exact phrase.
- There is a good amount of data for both sides.
- Judging people’s hearts is not our job. We are not in a position to determine if someone is a genuine believer or if someone has lost their salvation. If a person has made a profession of faith, we should assume that it was genuine. Who are we to say otherwise? But we should also realize that our judgment is limited and God is the final judge. If a person has appeared to walk away from their profession of faith, we should seek to avoid making a judgment on their status before God (e.g., whether she was ever a true believer) because we don’t understand the whole situation, we don’t know what will occur in that person’s future, and none of us are the final judge.
- We are time-bound, but this argument is ultimately about something that takes place in eternity—whether believers can lose their salvation, which begins in time but extends to living forever with God. Salvation has a past (1 Cor 15:2), present (1 Cor 1:18), and future (Phil 1:28) aspect. We are saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. So in a sense, we have salvation, but in another sense, we don’t have it yet. Regarding the future aspect, how can believers lose something, they don’t yet have?
We can all agree on the data: the NT contains warnings and assurances. And if all Scripture is inspired by God, the Bible contains warnings and assurances because God knew that we needed both. Perhaps like a wise coach encouraging his players, sometimes we need more assurance and other times we need more warnings. And some people need more warnings while others need more assurance. Danger lies with the extremes of both sides so perhaps God wants us to live in the middle: secure in his power and motivated to keep moving forward.