Once saved, can a person ever lose his salvation?
The thought of hell–of being separated from God for all eternity–is a frightening thought. So, it is easy to see the allure of believing that going to hell is an impossibility. Nevertheless, the once-saved-always-saved idea simply cannot be reconciled with authentic biblical Christianity.
The belief that a true believer cannot fall away (or “Eternal Security” as it is known today) may be traced back to John Calvin’s (d. 1564) doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, or perhaps to the predestination teachings of John Wyclif (d. 1384).
We believe that such ideas rely on an incorrect understanding of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:29-30:
“Those whom he foreknew he also predestined … . And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Calvin’s interpretation of this passage brought him to the really horrific conclusion that God has ordained certain souls to hell! “For reasons incomprehensible to our ignorance,” he declared, “God irresistibly impels man to violate His laws, that His inspirations turn to evil the heart of the wicked, and that man falls, because God has thus ordered it” (Patrick F. O’Hare, The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 273).
This line of reasoning gave way to the mistaken notion that Christ died on the Cross, not for all men, but for the elect only! The constant teaching of the Church, however, has been that God provides sufficient grace for everyone to be saved.
As Scripture teaches, “[God desires] all men to be saved and … come to the knowledge of the truth” (See Saint Paul’s First Letter to Timothy 2:4; the Gospel of John 12:32, John’s First Letter 2:2, et al.).
Augustine, a Doctor of the Church, (d. 430) wrote, “God gives assurance that even for those entangled in many and unavoidable sins, He will keep a remnant of kindness and clemency; and He says that even those He will not prevent from being saved if they will choose to return to better and more proper ways, in keeping with His laws” (Commentary on Isaias 4:2).
Likewise, Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) stated in the Summa Theologica, “Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 Jo. ii. 2: He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (3:48:2).
Moreover, the claims of Eternal Security are nowhere to be found in Scripture. Paul, for example, writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
4:3-5 I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God. …
9:27 I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. …
10:12 Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
In his Letter to the Philippians 2:12, Paul urges the faithful to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” In the same letter he writes, “If possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:11-12; emphasis added). In his Second Letter 3:17,Peter counsels Christians to “beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.”
The proponents of Eternal Security often quote John’s First Letter 5:13, “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”
However, a few verses earlier John affirms the need to persevere in holiness, writing, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we obey his commandments” (5:2-3; emphasis added).
Taken in the proper context, then, the Apostle is really saying, “You may know that you have eternal life, provided you persevere in the love of God and obey his commandments.”
Those who believe in the notion of Eternal Security also frequently quote Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:38-39:
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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.”
The one thing that Paul does not mention here, however, is sin, which most certainly will separate one from the love of God, even eternally should he fail to repent and persevere in holiness (per Isaiah 59:2).
In fact, Paul makes this point further on in the same Letter to the Romans 11:22, writing, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off” (emphasis added). Note that the same may be said in response to false claims regarding John 10:28, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus affirms that no one can remove another from God’s grasp. And yet, as the Letter to the Romans 11:22 verifies, a believer may remove himself from God’s grasp through disobedience.]
Indeed, Paul often cautioned Christians against falling back into sin, for none who commit sins will “have any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” as he wrote in his Letter to the Ephesian 5:5.
“Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it,” advises the author of The Letter to the Hebrews (2:1; emphasis added).1
It’s Hope, not Security
So, First Letter of John 5:13 and Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:38-39 express not eternal security, but the theological virtue of hope, which means trusting that God will keep His promise to us so long as we remain faithful to Him (see Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 13:13; his Letter to the Galatians 5:5; his First Letter to the Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8; and the Letter to the Hebrews 10:23).
The theological virtue of hope is beautifully expressed in the writings of the Doctors of the Church. Saint Teresa of Ávila (d. 1582), wrote:
“Hope, O my soul, hope.You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.” –Exclamaciones del alma a Dios 15:3; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1821
Likewise, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (d. 1897) wrote:
“This aspiration may seem presumptuous, considering how imperfect I was and still am, even after so many years in religion; yet I am daringly confident that one day I shall become a great Saint. I am not relying on my own merits, because I haven’t any. I hope in Him who is Virtue and Sanctity itself; He alone, content with my frail efforts, will lift me up to Himself, clothe me with His own merits and make me a Saint.” —Story of a Soul 4
- Many believe that the author of Hebrews, likely a disciple of Paul’s, wrote in 6:4 – 5 of the falling into apostasy even of “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” ↩