Many Christians believe in the doctrine of eternal security, which teaches that once someone is saved, they can never lose that salvation. It’s a very comforting thought, but it’s not without controversy. First of all, not all Christians believe in this doctrine, because the Bible gives very mixed signals about it. Secondly, most people who have left Christianity will attest to having a genuine belief when they were Christians, though they reject it now. Finally, common sense would also tell us that people can change their minds. So how do we answer this question?
Let’s start with what the Bible says on this subject. Christians who believe in eternal security (aka “once saved always saved”) get the idea from these passages:
For I am sure 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. — Romans 8:38-39
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will 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. — John 10:28-29
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. — John 6:37-40
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. — Ephesians 1:13-14
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” — Hebrews 13:5
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. — 1 John 2:19
If I’ve left any out, feel free to leave them as comments below, but these seem to be the major passages that support the idea of eternal security. I don’t know that any real discussion of these is necessary, as they seem fairly straightforward.
But a number of passages make the opposite case. To save time, I’m going to quote a comment I made about this on someone else’s blog:
In Hebrews 6:4-6, he talks about those who “have once been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, and shared in the Holy Spirit.” I think those qualities could only describe believers. It then says, “if they fall away.” How can you fall away from something you were never a part of? Again, good reason to think he’s talking about the saved. In verse 4 he says, “restore again to repentance.” How is that possible unless one had already repented at some point?
Hebrews 10 is even clearer. Verses 26-31 talk about how bad it will be for those who deny Christ. But it’s not talking about just any old unbeliever or skeptic. Verse 29 says it’s talking about one who has “profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.” You can’t be sanctified (cleansed) by Christ’s blood unless you’re a Christian.
1 Cor 9 doesn’t seem to talk about spiritual gifts to me [the other commenter had suggested that it did]. In fact, Paul says he’s working for a reward that’s imperishable. According to chapter 13 of this book, spiritual gifts were perishable. What isn’t? Eternal life. So if Paul is talking about eternal life and says that he doesn’t want to be disqualified, isn’t he talking about the possibility of losing his salvation?
1 Tim 1:18-20 is another passage to consider. Paul tells Timothy to hold his faith and a good conscience, then refers to those like Hymenaeus and Alexander who “shipwrecked” their faith. How can you wreck a faith that you never had?
But think about it. These passages are fairly clear. And take a look at Romans 11, which warns the Gentiles that they could be broken off just as the Jews had been. The Jews were broken off because of their unbelief (vs 20), but they could be grafted in again if they believe (vs 23). He’s obviously not talking about the entire Jewish and Gentile peoples, because there were both Jewish and Gentile Christians at this very time. He’s speaking in generalities to show that salvation is dependent upon faith.
So what should we make of all these passages? What’s the Bible’s position on this issue? Personally, I think some of the passages we listed at the beginning in support of eternal security can be reconciled with these that teach against it. About the only one that I think fully supports the doctrine of eternal security is 1 John 2:19. I don’t know how that fits with these other passages, but since they were written by different people, I don’t guess it should be too surprising that they’re a bit at odds. Either way, it seem clear to me that at least portions of the Bible teach that genuine Christians can most certainly stop believing and lose their salvation.
That was my experience as well. I was a sincere Christian for many years; it was the cornerstone of my life. My jobs, my wife, my financial decisions, when I had children (and what I named them) were all based around the beliefs that my wife and I shared. I was instrumental in converting several people to the particular brand of Christianity of which I’d been a member. It was very important to me to have the right beliefs. I wanted to make sure that I was serving God exactly as he had prescribed. It was actually that same desire for truth that eventually led me away from Christianity. To quote Paul, “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” My religious beliefs have always been genuine.
And if you think about it, it makes sense that people would be able to change their minds. If you’re like me, you believed in Santa Claus when you were a child. I assume you don’t believe in him now. Does that mean you never did? Of course not. It just means that as you’ve matured, you have received information and insight that have changed your mind. Why can’t it be the same with religion?
In fact, I’d say that the doctrine of eternal security actually has the opposite effect. After all, many Christians would now say that I was never a Christian. However, if they had known me as a Christian, they never would have suspected it then; nor did I. So what does that say about current Christians? Sure, they might think they’re Christians now, but what if they’re going to fall away at some point in the future? If eternal security is true, then they’re not actually Christians now. Even when a loved one dies, no one could really know where that person is going for eternity. What if he were going to fall away had he only lived another year? Well, obviously God would know that — wouldn’t he judge that person accordingly, since he would have never been a true Christian to begin with?
The doctrine of eternal security simply gains nothing for the Christian. It provides less assurance than believing salvation is dependent upon continued faith. The Bible has several passages that teach against it, and it is also contradicted by the testimony of those who have fallen away. To me, it seems clear that eternal security is a bogus doctrine, and I think Paul would have agreed with that as well.