*Editor’s Note: Can Christians lose their salvation–or were they never true Christians to begin with? This is Part 3 of a series dealing with these questions and exploring our eternal security as Christians. For Part 1 (“Are We Eternally Secure or Must We Have Faithful Faith?”), click here. For Part 2 (“Can a Christian Lose Salvation?”), click here.
I believe if a person just carefully reads the book of Hebrews, with as few preconceptions as possible, they will conclude a person can turn from Christ, become a non-believer, and forfeit salvation. Other New Testament books also teach this sobering truth. As we will see, this truth presents no contradiction with our by-grace-through-faith salvation—when it becomes clear what faith actually entails.
Let me start off with some clear examples of such a teaching upfront. Please prayerfully consider the following two sections of Scripture.
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Hebrews 6:4–6)
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26–31)
It is hard to believe that these two passages in Hebrews describe anything other than genuine Christians who turn from Christ and forfeit salvation.
Hebrews 6:4–5 states they have 1) been enlightened; 2) tasted the heavenly gift; 3) shared in the Holy Spirit; 4) tasted the goodness of the Word of God; and 5) tasted the powers of the coming age.
Hebrews 10:26–30 states they have 1) received knowledge of the truth and 2) been sanctified by the blood of the covenant, 3) but they are deliberately and continually turning away from Jesus.
The respected Hebrews scholar William Lane reviews these passages in detail and summarizes the reality that these people are Christians: “God’s presence and salvation are the undoubted reality of their lives,” He goes on to show how this passage warns that if they abandon their faith in Christ, they will face the eternal punishment of unbelievers. Again, Lane puts it well when he writes these passages “affirm the magnitude of the sin of apostasy and of the impending judgment from which there is no escape.”
Apostasy is the sin of turning away from Christ. I do not see how these passages in Hebrews can be interpreted authentically (and in context) without affirming the possibility of turning from Christ and forfeiting one’s salvation. To understand what it means to “become an apostate” and “fall away,” you need a bigger perspective on what the New Testament as a whole teaches. Join with me by reading the material below, as I hope it will help you see this teaching in the broader contours of the Bible.
The “By Grace, Through Faith” Formula
The Bible teaches we can only get right with God if we place our faith in Christ (Romans 3:23–25). The fact that Christ died does not save people in and of itself, but it does provide the basis upon which God, in full harmony with his holiness, can save those who have sinned against him. Christ was punished on the cross for our sins. That being said, what is required for us to establish our freedom and guiltlessness before God?
Absolutely nothing is required. God offers grace as a free gift. The Bible teaches we are saved by grace in that through Jesus, God offers us the gift of complete forgiveness and right standing with God, now and in eternity.
However, a condition must be in place if we are to receive God’s grace. This free gift can only be received if we place our faith in Christ. The Bible clarifies this in Ephesians 2:8–10:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Again, God provides the offer of his grace, but humans must accept it through faith. As Greek expert A. T. Robertson puts it, “Grace is God’s part, faith ours.” Faith springs from God and his Spirit’s influence upon us, yet it is also our response. Faith is both to “trust and follow” God through Jesus. The word for faith—pistis in Greek—includes mental assent and trust, but it also includes allegiance, loyalty, and faithfulness.
Faith should never be understood as earning salvation.
Faith is the decision to believe and surrender to God through Jesus. Genuine faith is a living, active thing and leads to perseverance and good works. Stated differently, good works result from the kind of faith that brings salvation.
Good works do not earn salvation, but good works reveal the presence of genuine faith and salvation. Likewise, when faith weakens, it manifests such in disobedience and sin. Evil deeds and sinful lifestyles reveal a problem with one’s faith. Because of how crucial it is to understand faith, let’s gain a deeper grasp on the nature of saving faith and persistent faithfulness.
Faith and Faithfulness
As pointed out above, “faith” is the key word in the human side of our relationship with God. “Faith,” “belief,” and “trust” are all similar words in the Bible. The entire Christian life is lived by faith:
This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” (Romans 1:17, NLT)
Again, biblical faith includes trust, allegiance, loyalty, and faithfulness. Faith is holistic; when present, faith transforms lives. The Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Faith is a living reality that transforms the mind, the heart, and the will.
The entire Christian life is lived by faith.
Let’s unpack some of the ways faith transforms the mind, heart, and will.
One way faith transforms us is through calling us to a rational assent to the facts of the Bible. It involves cognitively believing that Jesus Christ came to earth to show us the way and to save us. In our minds, we rationally believe what the Bible says about him. As thoughtful people, we base our eternal destiny upon the historical truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1–8).
Faith doesn’t stop at rational assent, for it is also a personal reliance on God through Christ. We personally rely upon—in our personal, subjective selves—that Christ is our Savior (John 3:16–18, 36). We rely not just on Christ’s work on the cross, but on Jesus’ teachings he provides through the Bible and through the indwelling presence of his Holy Spirit. Put another way, faith calls us not only to believe that Jesus is who he says he is but also to believe in him.
Just as importantly, faith is also a surrender of our will—a volitional commitment—to God.
We give ourselves to God through Christ’s leadership, committing ourselves to repentance and the determination to follow Christ in all things (Acts 2:38; Mark 8:34–38). By faith, we commit to be submissive to what God teaches. If we do not follow Christ’s teachings, something crucial is missing in our faith. Consider these words from the book of James:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. . . . As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (James 2:14–17, 26)
God shows us through the teaching of James that actions and deeds must accompany faith. As mentioned in the first article in this series, if mental assent were all that is required, the demons would also be saved for the demons believe Jesus is real.
According to James, God calls for a deeper faith.
This is why the Bible does not recognize faith apart from obedience. True faith leads to a life lived toward obedience and aimed away from sin. John MacArthur articulates the biblical balance well with these fitting words: “Faith obeys. Unbelief rebels. The fruit of one’s life reveals whether that person is a believer or an unbeliever.” The Bible describes it this way:
“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” (1 John 2: 3–4).
Faith is to “trust and follow Jesus.” If someone claims to be right with God, yet lives without a trust that results in obedience, then that person is .
William Booth, the Bible-believing founder of the Salvation Army, described it this way: “Faith and works should travel side by side, step answering to step, like the legs of men walking. First faith, and then works; and then faith again, and then works again—until they can scarcely distinguish which is the one and which is the other.”
Let’s get specific.
A lack of church involvement or a sexually immoral lifestyle or a lifestyle of drug usage does not, in and of itself, put us in eternal peril (as an external action). But something is wrong with the heart of the person engaging in ongoing sinful lifestyles, without confession and repentance. The light of true faith is being put out. Regardless of their words, such a person is not living with true and active faith in Jesus Christ and his teachings.
We must not focus too much on actions alone (although they remain centrally important) but on the deeper heart issues and faith issues that result in such actions. A hardness of heart to God’s teachings, without repentance, leads to the slow death of faith. Actions that are repeatedly inconsistent with faith reveal the death of a genuine . This is what Hebrews refers to by those who have “fallen away” (6:6) who should anticipate “a fearful expectation of judgment” (10:27).
So, what does this death look like? In the next article, we will look at three paths that lead to apostasy.
 William Lane, Hebrews vol. 47 (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991), p. 145.
 Ibid., 296.
 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, vol 14, p. 525.
 See Matthew Bates, Gospel Allegiance (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019), 61-62.
 The Greek word pistis (traditionally “faith”) is better translated faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, or allegiance in Romans 1:17 (and also in 1:5; 1:8; 1:12; 3:3; 3:22; etc.). In Romans 1:17, “by pistis” likely refers to Jesus the King’s faithful loyalty to God and “for pistis” likely refers to our faithful loyalty to Jesus as the King. For discussion, see Bates, Gospel Allegiance, 73–82.
 For a thorough discussion of the biblical nature of faith, in addition to the work by John MacArthur, Jr., in The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988) and The Gospel According to the Apostles (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), see Jospeh Fitzmyer, Paul and His Theology: A Brief Sketch (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1987), 85ff and especially Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 165ff.
 John MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 178.
 William Booth, “The Founder’s Messages to Soldiers,” Christianity Today, October 5, 1992, p. 48.
For more on this important topic, download the free ebook by Bobby Harrington called Eternal Security or Faithful Faith?