Central to the teachings of Jesus is that God forgives our sins. In conversion, among the greatest joys is the realization that through the gospel, all of our sins are forgiven. It is a time of great happiness.
Yet what happens when a person no longer possesses a repentant faith—when they live in deliberately sinful lifestyles or they turn their back on Jesus and the gospel? What kind of security before God do these people possess?
Some say that they are eternally secure: once God saves a person because of his or her faith in the gospel, that person can never lose it. Others say that a Christian is eternally secure if they hold on to Jesus by a faithful faith to the end of their lives (even though they will experience regular stumbles where they sin).
We want to explore this question: Which position is taught by the Word of God?
Ever since the Protestant Reformation, there have been two major views about the security of a believer among Protestant Christians. Yes, there are other views. But, when everything is said and done, two views dominate the history of Protestant and evangelical theology.
On the one hand, there are Christian teachers who hold that once a person is truly saved, God makes him or her eternally secure; in other words, “once saved, always saved.” God makes that person’s security evident by giving him or her a transformed life by his power alone and it results in a faithfulness to the end of his or her life.
On the other hand, there are Christian teachers who hold that, once a person is truly saved, God empowers that person to live a transformed life, but it is still possible for that person to resist the Holy Spirit, turn away from God, and become apostate and lost. The Christian teachers in this second category do not believe that we are saved one day and lost the next, contrary to what their detractors often say, but they do believe that, over time, a genuine Christian can reach the point where he or she turns away from Christ, abandons true faith, and forfeits salvation. They become non-believers.
There are good Christian leaders on each side of these two positions and both sides focus upon living a faithful life as emphasized in the Bible.
Both groups also question the salvation of those without a transformed life—people who don’t allow for the growth of immature faith and who don’t respond to temptation with sincere struggle. One side believes such people were never truly saved in the first place, whereas the other side believes they might have once been genuine believers who have now abandoned the faith.
The two positions regarding this in-house theological debate are called Calvinism and Arminianism.
Here is a summary statement on the two positions:
- Calvinists believe the following: Once saved, always saved, and God makes sure that the saved persevere with faithful faith.
- Arminians believe the following: Once saved, always saved, as long as the person responds to God and chooses to persevere with faithful faith.
They look similar. But there is a key difference: Calvinists believe that God alone will ensure that, once a person is saved, they will always have an active, true faith. On the other hand, Arminians believe that, once a person is saved, he or she must choose active faith in response to God and his Spirit. Likewise, Arminians hold that a person can resist God and give up on a true faith, while Calvinists believe that God will not allow a Christian to make that choice.
Even though most Christians do not think of themselves as systematic Calvinists or systematic Arminians, Christian theologians tend to think, lead, and teach with one framework or the other. Consequently, it is important to know the theological framework which influences our professors, teachers, and preachers. Here is a brief summary of the two positions:
Calvinism and Arminianism
|Founder: John Calvin (1509-1564)||Founder: Jacob Arminius (1560-1609)|
|Denominations: Presbyterians, some Baptists, others||Denominations: Methodists, Christian Church, others|
|Total Depravity: People are trapped in sin and cannot choose God. God’s will alone determines salvation (monergism).||Total Depravity: People are trapped in sin and need the Spirit’s guidance to choose God by faith. Humans respond to God in salvation (synergism).|
|Unconditional Election: Salvation is given to those God alone picks/elects, with no basis in a human response. God alone regenerates and God alone causes people to have faith.||Conditional Election: Salvation is given to those who hear and willingly respond to the gospel and the Holy Spirit by faith.|
|Limited Atonement: Jesus only died for the sins of the elect (those chosen for salvation by God).||Unlimited Atonement: Jesus atoned for the sins of everyone if they will respond to the gospel and the Spirit by faith.|
|Irresistible Grace: God’s calling and election to salvation of certain individuals is irresistible; if chosen, they cannot say no.||Resistible Grace: God by the Holy Spirit woos people, but God has given people the ability to resist and reject his Spirit or respond by faith.|
|Perseverance by God: People elected by God cannot be separated from God.||Perseverance by Faith: People cannot be snatched away from God, but they can develop hard hearts and turn from him and give up their faith.|
Again, the average church member might not understand or spend time advocating for one of these two systems. Yet these two belief systems represent the two dominant ways of looking at salvation among evangelical Christians. Thus, the majority of churches and Christian leaders will find themselves on a spectrum between these two—some strongly leaning one way, others strongly leaning the other way, some finding themselves somewhere in the middle.
Yet let’s not neglect a crucial area of agreement between both sides.
Regardless of which of the two theological understandings are adopted, both of these two camps believe that those who claim to be Christians, but participate in lifestyles of disobedience, are in eternal peril. This peril is the most pressing and practical biblical issue when it comes to the question of lost salvation, and it was never meant to be a matter of debate by Bible-believing Christians of either theological camp. And that concern is why we are gravely concerned about the following types of behaviors (although the list is not exhaustive) by people who claim to be Christians:
- A person stops attending church altogether.
- A person engages in an actively sexually immoral relationship.
- A person enters a lifestyle of drunkenness or drugs.
- A person’s life begins to revolve around the love of money.
- A person turns from Jesus to a lifestyle focused on themselves—or to another faith or no faith at all.
There is grave spiritual danger in lifestyles of disobedience because it’s a matter of living in rebellion to the teachings of Jesus in the Bible. When it comes to Calvinism and Arminianism, the same danger is framed in two ways. They are either on a path demonstrating that God never truly saved them in the first place (Calvinism) or they are on a path leading to apostasy (Arminian view).
Stated differently, those who hold both positions believe that saving faith is an allegiant, obedient, and faithful faith (Rom. 1:5). Yes, we all stumble and fall (James 3:2). On a daily basis we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness through Jesus (1 John 1:8-9). But as we stumble and fall, our relationship with Jesus remains. This is what it means to walk in God’s light (1 John 1:5-2:2). But the dominant thing about faithful Christians is that we trust and follow Jesus as a lifestyle.
There is grave spiritual danger in lifestyles of disobedience because it’s a matter of living in rebellion to the teachings of Jesus in the Bible.
A Third Way: Dangerous False Teaching
At the same time, there is a relatively new view in the history of theology that is both biblically false and spiritually harmful. It’s a view of faith that isn’t actually based on the Word of God. Thus, people who hold to historic Calvinism and Arminianism explicitly reject this teaching.
It is the view that:
- Once saved, always saved, no matter how you live.
This recent belief in mainstream Christian theology (especially since the early 1960s) has been made popular by certain preachers, especially those who want to comfort those with loved ones who no longer follow Jesus. Though popular, the belief is a false and dangerous one.
Think about what it means to claim a saving relationship with Jesus, yet to walk in a disobedient lifestyle. 1 John 1:6 gives us a short but succinct statement about these people’s status with God:
“If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.”
The Bible teaches that, in the absence of a transformed life, the claim to be a Christian is false. In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus states the danger plainly.
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons, and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
Not only does the popular false belief of “once saved, always saved, no matter how you live,” give false comfort, but it calls into question the moral influence of Christianity as a whole and it harms the cause of Jesus by encouraging shallow faith and hypocrisy. The people Jesus described thought they had a saving relationship with him, but they did not. Even though they were religious and used his name, they did not do the will of God, and Jesus did not have a genuine relationship with them.
Note this important implication from the words of Jesus: there are influential people who appear to be saved when they are not.
The root problem is an emphasis on religion and grace that is not based on the Word of God. Salvation, as false teachers often present it, is granted totally by grace. There is no meaningful human response, or the human part of faith is reduced to just mental assent or a shallow trust—a simple affirmation that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. And that, we are told, is all that is needed.
The upshot is that this kind of faith does not include faithfulness, loyalty, allegiance, or obedience. But even the demons have that kind of faith, as James tells us (2:19):
“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”
This false conception of faith is contradicted by numerous passages in Scripture such as the following:
- John 15:10 – “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”
- 1 John 2:3-4 – “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.”
- Mark 8:34 – “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”
- Ephesians 5:5 – “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
As these passages and others show us, true faith is faithful and obedient to Jesus. Again, to have saving faith is to both trust and follow Jesus.
True faith is faithful and obedient to Jesus.
False teachers who claim that faith is saving faith when it does not include faithfulness and obedience are distorting God’s Word. They are teachers like those Jude warns us about in the New Testament: “They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 1:4).
Such teaching is also a major distortion of the biblical teaching on grace. What the Bible actually teaches is that we are saved “by grace, through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9). The biblical formula has two parts: God’s grace and the human response of faith. A healthy understanding of both grace and faith are necessary to understand what the Bible actually teaches.
These Christians identify with John Calvin and are referred to by scholars as Calvinists.
For more on this important topic, download the free ebook by Bobby Harrington called Eternal Security or Faithful Faith?