This is a post that I have been intending to write for some time, but recent readings on God’s providence and sovereignty have brought it to my mind again.
When someone becomes a Christian and is saved, is that salvation permanent, or can it be lost? The answer to that question has been hotly debated for a long time, and in this post, I’d like to briefly summarize three different popular answers. My point in this post is not to argue which answer is correct (though I’ll let you know where I stand), but rather to emphasize the practical consequences of each viewpoint, and to indicate that two views which people frequently equate with one another are actually significantly different.
Perseverance of the Saints
This perspective is one of the central tenants of Calvinism (the “P” in “TULIP”). It holds that God, in his sovereign power, keeps those who are saved, saved. Also known as eternal security, the idea is that nothing in heaven or earth can separate true Christians from the loved of God (Romans 8.39). The adjective true in “true Christians” from the previous sentence is an important one, as we’ll see in our hypothetical example below.
Once Saved Always Saved
A popular version (or perversion?) of Perseverance of the Saints is the teaching of Once Saved Always Saved which you hear in many evangelical groups today. Many of the same Bible verses will be used to support this view, and this perspective is often held to be synonymous with Perseverance of the Saints, but as we will see below, there is a crucial difference between the two.
The Reality of Apostasy
The third perspective holds that someone can be truly saved and then later fall away from that salvation (the word apostasy means to fall away). This view does not intend to undermine God’s sovereignty, but rather holds than in his sovereignty, God has chosen to give free will to humanity, and that he will permit them to use that free will to walk away from their faith. This is the view that I hold, and I think it is the only one that correctly interprets passages like Hebrews 6.4-6.
A Hypothetical Case Study
To examine some of the practical applications of these different perspectives, let’s take a look at a hypothetical case study.
Frank grew up going to church sporadically, but never really took it seriously. Then, at a summer church camp after his senior year in high school, his conscience was pricked, he decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to the Lord, and he became a Christian and was saved.*
For several weeks after this, Frank was very active in a local church, and even tried to share his faith with his friends. Then, he went off to college, struggled to find a church there, and before long, completely quit attending. Furthermore, he got heavily involved in the college party scene. Before long, he became a heavy drinker, was sexually promiscuous, and experimented with illegal drugs.
After a few semesters, Frank actually dropped out of college, and began selling drugs to make a living and to support his own habit. As time went on, he moved on to increasingly dangerous drugs, and his lifestyle became more dangerous and volatile; he would use violence to get what he wanted, and was even implicated in a couple of drug-related murders. Ultimately, he is killed one night in a drug deal gone bad.
So, at the point of his death, was Frank saved? Let’s look at how the three perspectives above would answer that question.
In the Perseverance of the Saints view, Frank was never saved in the first place. Although God guarantees the salvation of those who are truly converted, it is evident based on Frank’s lifestyle of selfish choices and sinful behavior that he was never truly converted in the first place. In other words, true Christians are eternally secure in their salvation, but Frank was never saved in the first place: whatever happened at church camp his senior year just looked like he was being saved; he really wasn’t. If he had really been saved, he would have lived a drastically different sort of life.
In the Once Saved Always Saved view, Frank was saved. Back in summer camp he had done what was necessary to be saved, and God promises to keep those who are saved, saved. Thus, regardless of whatever Frank did later in life, God is faithful, and saves him anyway.
In the Reality of Apostasy view, Frank was saved but then forfeited that salvation. Back in summer camp Frank did was was necessary to be saved, and so he really did receive salvation. Sadly, the choices he made following conversion did not live up to the commitment he made at conversion, and since God honors the free will of humans, he allowed Frank to choose to forfeit his salvation.
I think the three views and their practical implications can be summarized as follows:
Perseverance of the Saints: God guarantees the salvation of the truly saved, but the genuineness of our salvation is borne out in our works. If we don’t show good works in our lives, it’s evident that we were never really saved in the first place. Of course, the practical problem with this is that it becomes impossible to tell (at least, from the outside) if a person’s salvation experience is truly genuine: we have to wait and see how they live before we can know. For me this is a big problem, because I think Scripture teaches that we can know that we are saved. At least from a practical standpoint, that is denied in this view.
Once Saved Always Saved: God guarantees the salvation of those who are saved, so those who do what is necessary to be saved are saved forever, regardless of what they do later in life. The practical problem here is that it completely devalues the importance of good works in our lives: we can apparently be saved without them. For me, this is completely unacceptable: I don’t know how the Bible could be any clearer that what we do in life actually matters. Practically, that idea is denied in this view.
Reality of Apostasy: God guarantees the salvation of his people, the church, and so those who are saved, added to the church, and remain a part of the church, are saved. However, if our lifestyle is characterized by continual disobedience to God’s will, then God honors our choices and allows us to forfeit our salvation. This view affirms that we can really know we are saved when it happens (as apposed to the first view), and that our works matter (as opposed to the second). Instead, it gives up the idea that those who are saved are saved no matter what. That in and of itself is not a problem (because I think the Bible teaches that salvation can be lost), but the practical problem that can arise is that people can press this view to unhealthy extremes lose all assurance of their salvation and are constantly unsure of their status before God (e.g. I went to church this morning and took communion, so I am okay/I got upset and cursed at my spouse today so I am lost). However, I don’t think this unhealthy extreme is the necessary result of this view, and in my personal life, I affirm the reality of apostasy while remaining confident that I am saved by God’s grace and that his grace continues to keep me saved as long as I continue to follow Him.
*Obviously, people also have different views on what a person must do to be saved. The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, but there is significant disagreement about the nature of that faith: is it mental assent, or is it an obedient faith that requires specific acts on our part? The way we are saved is not the focus of this post, however. For the sake of our hypothetical argument, just assume that being saved means what you, the reader, think it means.