Can a Christian Lose Salvation? (Part 2)
The question of eternal security can be an inflammatory one for many evangelicals. Many evangelicals were raised by parents or pastors who taught that it was an essential doctrine. “Never go to a church,” they say, “where they do not teach eternal security.” By that statement they mean, “Don’t ever go to a church that teaches that a Christian can turn his or her back on Christ.”
There are three problems with that sentiment.
First, under that teaching, far too many wrongly assume the posture of “once saved, always saved, no matter how you live.”
As we have seen, in the history of Christianity, this is a recent teaching which is biblically false and spiritually harmful. By this doctrine, many have felt justified in being unfaithful to Jesus’s commands. They make the conscious or unconscious decision that faithfulness to inconvenient teachings in the Word of God is an optional part of saving faith.
Secondly, the view that a completely unfaithful person is still a saved person puts oneself outside the mainstream of both classic Calvinism and Arminianism.
Far too many people have never studied the issue and do not realize, in the words of John Wesley, that there is a “hair’s breadth” difference between those who hold a classic Calvinist view of eternal security and the classic Arminian view that you can become an apostate. Here is what I mean:
- Classic Calvinists believe that we should take the warnings of apostasy seriously and that by these warnings God helps us to stay faithful.
- Classic Arminians believe that we should take the warnings of apostasy seriously and that by these warnings God is exhorting us to choose to stay faithful.
Notice the difference: one camp sees the warning passages as only hypothetical warnings that are part of God’s sovereign guidance ensuring that people remain faithful, while the other camp believes the warnings are real, and are part of how people learn to stay faithful. At this important level, John Wesley was right: there is only a “hair’s breadth” difference in practical terms in how these teachings are lived out in a local church. Here is what I mean: we can hold to different theological systems yet still agree that we need to help each other to stay faithful. Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that God uses the warnings in Scripture and the exhortations of God’s people to help us stay faithful.
We can hold to different theological systems yet still agree that we need to help each other to stay faithful.
Thirdly, most people warning against Arminian beliefs do not actually understand them.
They have been taught false representations of the view. They will say, for example, that non-Calvinists believe you are saved one day and lost the next day. Or they will be warned to be careful of Arminians because they are really just “semi-pelagians” (Pelagianism was an ancient heresy).
Strangely, it seems that few of the people who object to Arminian beliefs have actually read the one-page Arminian statement of faith.
I find when people actually read it, the vast majority pause. To their surprise, they find themselves acknowledging that it describes something similar to what they actually believed before they read it. The statement is short; read it for yourself below.
The Arminian Creed, 1610
Article 1. (Conditional Election)
That God, by an eternal and unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son before the foundation of the world, has determined that out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who through the grace of the Holy Spirit shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath and to condemn them as alienated from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John 3:36: “He that believes on the Son has everlasting life: and he that does not believe the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him,” and according to other passages of Scripture also.
Article 2. (Unlimited Atonement)
That, accordingly, Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in the First Epistle of John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Article 3. (Total Depravity)
That man does not possess saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as in his state of apostasy and sin he can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is); but that it is necessary that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, and will, and all his faculties, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me you can do nothing.”
Article 4. (Resistible Grace)
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to the extent that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But with respect to the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places).
Article 5. (Perseverance)
That those who are incorporated into Christ by true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, as a result have full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no deceit or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, according to the Word of Christ, John 10:28: “Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of neglecting grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full confidence of our mind.
Regarding the last point, Arminians generally, over time, came to believe that a person can turn away from faith in Christ and thereby forfeit salvation.
What do you think? Most people who read and reflect on it tell me that this creed is in step with a natural reading of the Bible.
My View on Calvinism Versus Arminianism on Apostasy
I am a part of church fellowships which include both Calvinists and Arminians—because where one lands on the Calvinism-Arminian debate does not affect a person’s salvation. At the same time, most of the leaders in the Renew.org network and in our Christian Church fellowships agree that the Bible supports the Arminian beliefs. Specifically, we believe that a true Christian can lose his or her salvation through apostasy. New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall states what I believe to be true when he writes, “If people wish to attain to final salvation, they must persevere in faith.”
Let me share a key difference when it comes to the Calvinist and Arminian views on apostasy.
It begins with how we understand certain watershed passages, such as we find in Romans 9. If a person believes that Romans 9 teaches that God predetermines which individuals go to hell and which go to heaven—apart from any human response of faith—he or she will become a Calvinist. Salvation to a Calvinist has no dependence on any human response; it is totally based on God’s mystical choice of individuals predetermined to heaven or hell before the creation of the world. Thus, if God predetermines that you are saved, then surely God also predetermines that you can never lose that salvation.
Consequently, those who lean toward Calvinism will feel a great need to re-explain additional passages, such as the warning passages in Hebrews. On the face of it, the warning passages in Hebrews clearly support an Arminian point of view. So, Calvinists must explain away these passages, as scholars such as Thomas Schriener, R.C. Sproul, and Michael Horton demonstrate.
I cannot embrace the Calvinist approach to these Scriptures for three reasons.
First, I do not want to explain away any set of passages in the Bible under the pressure of a systematic theology which predetermines, in advance, how I must explain them.
This is the case whether it be a Calvinist system or any other system. I want the text to form and reform my theology. I want Scripture to be my primary and ultimate guide. Yes, that means I will have to end up with some loose ends, but, at the same time, Jesus and his gospel do not require certainty about every detail in the Christian faith.
Secondly, I do not think the Calvinist interpretation of foundational passages such as Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 is the most accurate understanding. Let me recommend some good resources on a better way to understand these passages that form the basis of a Calvinist view of salvation.
These resources show what I believe to be a better way:
- Matt O’Reilly, “How Romans 9-11 (and Romans 8) Make Me an Arminian” https://www.theologyproject.online/post/how-romans-9-11-and-romans-8-make-me-arminian
- James M. Rochford, “Romans 9: An Arminian Interpretation” https://www.evidenceunseen.com/bible-difficulties-2/nt-difficulties/romans-2/romans-9-an-arminian-interpretation/
- Picirilli, Robert, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2002)
- Matt Pinson, 40 Questions about Arminianism (forthcoming, Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2022)
For those who appeal to other passages in the New Testament to bolster their Calvinist views, see the short statements in the appendix as well as Matthew Pinson’s exposition of each passage brought up on the security of the believer in his book 40 Questions about Arminianism.
Third, I cannot personally reconcile the Calvinist portrait of God with the rest of Scripture’s teaching on God’s love and goodness.
In Calvinism, God predetermined that the vast majority of individuals will go to hell before he ever created the world. God wanted that reality. In turn, God predetermined that he will save only a portion of humanity. It is hard for some to admit it, but as theologian Jerry Walls says, in Calvinism, God does not truly love everyone. Furthermore, in the theology of people who apply their Calvinism consistently, God predestined specific evils such as the Holocaust and the like. I am sympathetic with those ex-Calvinists, like Austin Fisher, who came to believe that the God of Calvinism, at an in-depth level, can be perceived as a moral monster.
The view of God I find in the Bible is that God loves us all (e.g., John 3:16).
As such, God wants to save as many as possible. Yet he saves only those who respond to him by faith in Jesus. God does not want anyone to go to hell, but he respects our individual and group choices to live without him. God does not desire the evils of the Holocaust and the like, but he chose a sovereignty that permits human and demonic choices and a cursed world, all while working toward a greater good in the end. Evil is temporary, for an age in which God uses free will and suffering as means of clarifying our beliefs about God, refining our characters, and living in a world of choice. We live life in this world in a refining process often called “soul making.” In the world to come, all evil, including our choices, will be limited because of the destruction of Satan and the demons and the renewal of all things.
God permits this world and works in this world, but evil choices are not his preference. Calvinists, on the other hand, believe that this is the world God predetermined—and that God predestined the majority of people to go to hell.
To me, these logical implications of Calvinism are inconsistent with Scripture and with God’s love.
Genesis 6:5-6 states succinctly the posture that I believe reflects God’s view of this world.
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.
God’s posture of love for the world is why he sent Jesus. He wants to save as many as possible.
- 1 Timothy 2:3-4 – “God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
- 2 Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
In short, since Adam and Eve, evil choices are made which are truly free. God allows them, but they break his heart.
In this age between God’s creation of the heavens and the earth and his creation of a new heaven and new earth. God determined that freely chosen love, as a response to his love in Christ, while risky, is much better than pre-determining human destiny.
God wants a genuine response from people, with true freedom to respond—not the pre-programming that is found in robots and computers.
Furthermore, I believe that the overall teaching of the New Testament assumes that Christians will persevere (because of God’s help), but it also teaches that a true Christian can resist God’s empowering presence, turn from the faith, and thereby be lost. This ability to become lost is described in the New Testament’s “warning passages,” the subject to which we turn in the next article.
God’s posture of love for the world is why he sent Jesus. He wants to save as many as possible.
 “Q&A: John Wesley,” Holiness Today, https://www.holinesstoday.org/QA-John-Wesley, accessed April 16, 2021.
 “The Articles of the Remonstrants” are adapted from Phillip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 3, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1996, 545ff.
 I. Howard Marshal, “The Problem of Apostasy in New Testament Theology,” in Jesus the Saviour (London: SPCK, 1990): 306-324. See also I. Howard Marhsall, Kept By The Power of God; Robert Picirilli, Grace, Faith, and Free Will; Leroy Forliness, The Quest for Truth.
 See Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinoi, 2001), Matt Pinson, editor, Four Views of Eternal Security (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2002), and Herbert Bateman IV, editor, Four Views of the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Kregel Publishing, Grand Rapids, 2007).
 Jerry L. Walls, “Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What Is Wrong with Calvinism,” Denver Seminary. https://denverseminary.edu/article/does-god-love-everyone-the-heart-of-what-is-wrong-with-calvinism/ (accessed April 19, 2021).
 Austin Fisher, Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and the Journey in and Out of Calvinism (Cascade Books, 2014).
For more on this important topic, download the free ebook by Bobby Harrington called Eternal Security or Faithful Faith?