Can a Christian lose their salvation, and if so, how does a person forfeit their salvation? This is Part 4 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, and for Part 3 (“Does Hebrews Teach We Can Lose Our Salvation”), click here.
The Bible teaches that through the Holy Spirit, God leads us to place our faith in Christ (John 16:7–11; 1 John 2:20, 27). Yet we can still resist the Holy Spirit as people did in the Bible (Acts 7:51–53). When we choose to respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit, we will find confirmation of the truth of Christ within our inner beings (1 Cor. 2:10). After we believe, God gives us his indwelling Spirit (Acts 2:28). The Holy Spirit acts as a deposit, a “down payment,” for the eternal life we will share with God forever (Eph. 1:13–14).
God continues to work, through the Holy Spirit and providence, to protect us and enable us to persevere. God promises to keep us safe, so that no force, no circumstance, not even Satan himself, can snatch us out of God’s hand.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. (John 10:27–29)
As Christians, we are the sheep who listen to Christ and follow him by faith. We cannot be snatched away. We are secure in God, for he is always doing his part to strengthen us, protect us from the evil one, and keep us safe.
“We are secure in God, for he is always doing his part to strengthen us, protect us from the evil one, and keep us safe.”
But this passage (and others like it) does not eliminate our free will. The Bible teaches we can walk away from the protection God provides. Satan cannot snatch us, but we have the free will to turn away from God and reject God’s sustaining power by turning away from Christ.
The Bible teaches we are responsible for our moral choices (Luke 17:1–3). If we were not responsible for them, then God would not be fair in punishing us for our disobedience. But God is fair (Rom. 2:3–7). As people who possess free will, we are ultimately responsible for our choices. And just as we once said yes to the pull of God’s Spirit and placed our faith in Jesus, can we not, with that same ability to choose, turn and say no? Furthermore, if we have genuine freedom, then we can also choose, over time, to turn away from the protection God provides and leave him. God’s grace is something that can be “resisted” (Acts 7:51); the Spirit’s fire can be “put out” (1 Thes. 5:19); and we can become “hardened” in rebellion and turn away from God (Heb. 3:7–14).
“We can become ‘hardened’ in rebellion and turn away from God.”
Thus, by God’s power we must be faithful, lest our names be blotted out from the “book of life” (Rev. 3:5; Ps. 69:28). In short, God provides protection and God influences us for good, but God does not take away our free will to choose.
The Danger of Falling Away
The biblical teaching on God’s sustaining power in our lives is foundational for understanding what being saved means. We can rest assured that God is doing all he promised to help us remain faithful. But resting in him doesn’t mean becoming idle when it comes to the faithfulness he calls us to. God’s provision must also be balanced with our Christian responsibility.
Jesus shows how the two work together in the Gospel of John.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:1–6)
“If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers.”
Jesus is the vine; as such, he provides nurture and sustenance. By his power, we, his disciples, are branches that will bear fruit as we remain attached to the vine. The fruit Jesus talked about in this context is obedience to his commands, especially the command to love people. Yes, again, we must remain in him.
But Jesus gave a warning. If there is no fruitfulness, God will cut people off. They will be thrown into the fire (John 15:2, 6), surely a reference to hell. How does this work out? The key to our security in Christ is that we continue to “remain in Christ.” God provides all we need to be saved, but we must stay in relationship with God (remaining in the vine) to bear the fruit of a changed life. Consistently living without a transformed relationship that relies on God’s power becomes very dangerous; we can enter a point where we no longer remain in Christ.
“Consistently living without a transformed relationship that relies on God’s power becomes very dangerous; we can enter a point where we no longer remain in Christ.”
If we consistently refuse to respond to God’s presence and power, evident by our disobedience, a hard-heartedness toward God can develop within us. Our rebellious actions show we are turning away or have turned away from faith. If this becomes a pattern in our lives, it can become entrenched in active unbelief, and faith can die. We are then in danger of hell, of being “thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6).
The Paths of Apostasy
Apostasy describes the process by which someone turns away from “saving faith” and forfeits salvation because they have become apostate. It is not an instantaneous thing, but the result of ongoing choices made—typically in the face of challenges and ongoing temptations. And no outside person can know, for sure, when someone has crossed the line and forfeited their relationship with God. Only God truly knows.
It is sobering because such a person may still claim to believe, but they do not have true faith in Jesus. The biblical balance teaches that God gives his grace and protection so a Christian will remain with him. But Christians must continue to follow God by faith. We have a relationship with God through a faith that is obedient. Obedience does not bring salvation, but it is the inevitable fruit produced by genuine faith.
“Obedience does not bring salvation, but it is the inevitable fruit produced by genuine faith.”
From the Bible itself, we can identify three general paths that lead to a termination of genuine faith and the forfeiture of salvation. In what follows, we will examine paths that the Bible points to as warnings, describing those who turn away from the faith.
1. Turning from Jesus and His Gospel.
The first path that leads to apostasy is when someone renounces the faith. These people give up on the gospel. Salvation is promised to anyone who places their faith in Jesus’ gospel, but only if, according to Paul, “you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:2). Carefully note the essence of the gospel, according to the apostle Paul:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3–8)
The gospel is that upon which we rely when we become Christians. To abandon and no longer firmly rest our faith on this foundation is to repudiate the whole basis of salvation. To renounce the gospel is to commit spiritual suicide.
“To renounce the gospel is to commit spiritual suicide.”
This is not to say a person must be right on every biblical doctrine to be saved. True, Christians strive to hold correct beliefs on all biblical doctrines. For every part of God’s truth is valuable. But there are different weights in God’s truth. Some elements are essential, some elements are important, and some elements are personal.
We forfeit salvation when we turn from Jesus’ gospel—for it is essential for salvation. Stating it properly, Jesus’ gospel and our faith in his gospel are essential. Jesus and his gospel are both narrow and wide. We embrace Jesus’ gospel by faith to become saved, and that makes it narrow. But we spend the rest of our lives learning to live out the implications of Jesus’s gospel by faith, and that makes it wide.
“The centrality and essential nature of Jesus’ gospel never changes.”
But the centrality and essential nature of Jesus’ gospel never changes. Those who turn from Jesus and his gospel to other religions forfeit their salvation. Paul addressed the book of Galatians to a group of Christians in spiritual danger of the suicide of faith because they were turning from Jesus and his gospel. Paul warns about abandoning the gospel and becoming apostates with these stark words:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Gal. 1:6–9)
Paul uses the strongest language possible to warn these Christians not to turn away and forfeit their salvation. Those who leave the gospel of Jesus will switch from being saved to being condemned (v. 9).
“Those who leave the gospel of Jesus will switch from being saved to being condemned.”
When we examine the entire book of Galatians, the real problem is clarified. False teachers were saying that faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ was not enough. They were advocating that Gentile Christians had to adopt the practices of ethnic Jews to be saved. In doing this, these false teachers had changed the basis of salvation. The false teachers held that salvation was not by faith in Jesus and his gospel but by the practices of circumcision and Judaism. Paul’s response and warning against apostasy is clear:
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. . . . You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:2, 4)
“You have fallen away from grace.”
Paul resorts to such strong words because souls were put in jeopardy by the teaching that faith in Christ and his cross was not enough. The New Testament also warns against this peril elsewhere:
Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God. (2 John 1:8–9)
Timothy, my son, I am giving you this . . . so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander. (1 Tim. 1:18–20)
“Christians can leave their relationship with God if they turn from the essential elements of the faith.”
As we see, Christians can leave their relationship with God if they turn from the essential elements of the faith. Thus, such matters are of utmost seriousness. Turning from the faith is a danger for those who flirt with or actively embrace the general secularism of our culture and for those who live in practical disbelief even though they claim to be Christians. The danger is also very real for those who adopt a “progressive Christianity” that denies the exclusivity of Jesus and gives the ways of the culture priority. It also happens to those who turn from Jesus to another religion (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.). We must remain diligent to defend and uphold the faith that God has entrusted to us (Jude 3).
2. Turning from Jesus Because of Testing and Hardships.
A second path that can lead to apostasy is testing and hardships. Thus, a new Christian must become rooted and grounded in the faith. A person can have a weak faith for many reasons, including immaturity, lack of discipleship, and a lack of nurture and training in what it means to seek God. Like newborn children, such people are often in spiritual danger. Jesus made this danger clear in Luke 8:4–15 as he described seed sown by a farmer. The seed that fell among the rocks represents those who abandon Christ because they have no spiritual depth. Jesus described the soil with these words:
Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. (Luke 8:13)
“In the time of testing they fall away.”
This passage describes Christians who believe, but they do not possess a deeply rooted, sustaining faith. During a time of testing, they fall away. The source of “testing” can be many things. For some it might be struggles with family members or with lifestyle choices or even with general hardships that come from living in a fallen world; as a result, they falter and fall away. New Christians and even those who have been Christians for years without maturing are in particular danger at this point. Their faith is not rooted to withstand the hardships of life.
Faith requires nurturing and ongoing growth. For this reason, discipleship is essential. To develop this kind of faith, we must learn to practice seeking God, studying the Bible, remaining active in church, and receiving help through intentional discipling relationships. Helping each other grow in the faith, in this way, is essential. We must not only believe in God, but earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). We must seek God through active efforts of faith if we are to make our salvation sure (2 Peter 1:3–10). Near the end of his life, even the apostle Paul describes the challenge this way: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). If even Paul had to strive to “keep the faith,” then surely we must train people and help them to learn to do the same.
3. Embracing Sinful Lifestyles Inconsistent with Repentant Faith.
The third path that can lead to apostasy is the active, ongoing practice of sin. Every Christian engages in a lifelong struggle with sin, but the Bible warns that deliberate and ongoing sin, as a conscious choice that involves rejecting Jesus’ leadership (i.e., his lordship), can lead to the death of faith and, consequently, to apostasy. This person’s will is in rebellion against God’s teaching.
Repentance is a key part of saving faith. The apostle Paul summarized his ministry with these words: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Repentance is the “no” side of faith, describing what we will turn from. Obedience is the “yes” side of faith, describing what we are turning to.
“Turning back to what one repented from to engage in deliberate and ongoing sin again is a problem.”
Turning back to what one repented from to engage in deliberate and ongoing sin again is a problem. The combination of deliberate choices that are ongoing (continuous) and involve a rejection of Jesus lead to a denial of faith and a bad ending.
The book of Hebrews describes the basic principles:
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. (Heb. 10:26–27)
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth.”
According to this passage, the key characteristic of those in danger is they “deliberately keep on sinning” after obtaining “the knowledge of the truth.” This passage is not saying a Christian cannot sin. Every Christian struggles with sinful acts, giving in to its power in one area or another (James 3:2). But this passage teaches that giving in to a lifestyle of deliberate and continual pattern of sin is a different matter entirely. Such behavior rejects Jesus Christ and genuine faith in him as the next few verses show:
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. (Heb. 10:28–31)
The deliberate and ongoing practice of a sinful lifestyle hardens a person’s heart to the Holy Spirit and leads to repudiation of true, submissive faith.
“The deliberate and ongoing practice of a sinful lifestyle hardens a person’s heart to the Holy Spirit and leads to repudiation of true, submissive faith.”
Why is this presented as either/or in Scripture? Well, something will be our master—sin leading to death or obedience leading to righteousness (Romans 6:16). We must either reject God or reject sin. Notice what this person is doing according to the passage from Hebrews 10:28–31 listed above:
- Trampling the Son of God underfoot
- Treating as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him
- Insulting the Spirit of grace
A faith that does not continue in a pursuit of faithfulness is not a saving faith. The problem described here is not giving into a small sin or even giving into a big one, because God provides ongoing forgiveness when we confess (1 John 1:7–9). The problem is a rebellious heart.
“These actions involve ongoing participation in sinful lifestyles.”
This rebelliousness often manifests in major sins, such as actively living in sexual immorality, hard-hearted divorce, a pattern of stealing or drug abuse, etc. These actions involve ongoing participation in sinful lifestyles. In reality, these are premeditated sins that reflect a heart problem. Hebrews 3:12–14 describes this state:
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.
Notice the progression: a sinful heart nurtures unbelief, and then it turns away. Sin hardens a person and creates a deceived heart. The person turns away from the living God because they cannot both actively seek a heart for God and justify (in their heart) an active lifestyle of sin.
“The person turns away from the living God because they cannot both actively seek a heart for God and justify (in their heart) an active lifestyle of sin.”
One of the clearest sections of the New Testament that describes sinful lifestyles and what they practically do to a person is Galatians 5:19–21. In a warning to Christians, the apostle Paul explicitly lists lifestyles that characterize those living in ongoing rebellion.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
This passage lists for us the types of lifestyles (“those who live like this”) that give evidence that a Christian is being hardened to God and not living with an active and submissive faith. This passage serves as a warning to Christians, ancient and modern. People who live this way turn their backs on Christ by their lifestyles. The key is a sinful lifestyle that denotes ongoing willful sin, as opposed to the occasional sinful acts with which every Christian struggles.
“The key is a sinful lifestyle that denotes ongoing willful sin, as opposed to the occasional sinful acts with which every Christian struggles.”
True faith follows the teachings of Jesus. Notice the following sobering warning. The Bible teaches it is better to have never become a Christian than to become one and turn your back on Christ.
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. (2 Peter 2:20–21)
This concern is why the book of James says, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20).
“A person who embraces an actively sinful lifestyle is in danger of apostasy because their heart is hardening to God and no longer manifesting a submissive faith.”
A person who embraces an actively sinful lifestyle is in danger of apostasy because their heart is hardening to God and no longer manifesting a submissive faith. If such a person claims to be a Christian, we must recognize the root faith problem. They are not trusting and following Jesus. They are living in active rebellion against what the Bible teaches and are not submitting to Jesus as Lord and King of their lives.
This attitude of internal rebellion can become entrenched. This rebellious heart was revealed in the lives of King Saul and King Solomon in the Old Testament. God is always willing to accept us back when we truly repent, no matter what we have done. But we must be careful that our heart does not get irreversibly hard in such a way that we do not want to come back and surrender again with submissive faith in Christ.
Again, this is a point of balance. All Christians struggle with intermittent sin, and sometimes in dangerous ways. Such times are perilous, and we should be fearful of the consequences. But if rebellious Christians come to their senses and truly repent, they can return to God. He is like the prodigal son’s father, always willing and waiting to welcome back his children if they repent and turn back to him (Luke 15:11–32).
“The problem with entrenched sin in our lives is the hardness that develops within our hearts when we continually reject Christ in favor of sin.”
The problem with entrenched sin in our lives is the hardness that develops within our hearts when we continually reject Christ in favor of sin. Sin’s strangulation is an especially big danger for new or immature Christians. This is why Jesus gave us a hyperbolic but sobering warning in Matthew 18:8: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” Sometimes drastic measures need to be taken to turn from sinful lifestyles to submit to God and his will instead of submitting to our own deceptive hearts.
What about when we have zero desire to reject the faith and we are resolved to follow Jesus—yet we frustratingly find ourselves persisting in sin? How can we be forgiven when we want to follow Jesus yet sin again and again? That’s the topic of the next article.
 For more on the gospel see Matthew Bates, Gospel Allegiance (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019) and The Gospel Precisely: Surprisingly Good News About Jesus Christ the King (Renew.org, 2021).
 Bobby Harrington and Jason Henderson, Conviction and Civility: Thinking and Communicating Clearly About What the Bible Teaches (Renew.org, 2018). For a free copy of the e-book, see https://renew.org/ebook/conviction-and-civility/.
 There is a great deal of scholarly discussion in recent times on just what these false teachers advocated. Thomas Schriener offers what I believe to be the most sensible perspective on this complicated issue. See “‘Works of Law’ in Paul,” Novum Testamentum 33, 3 (1991): 217–144. See also F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians, New International Greek Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).
 Robert Shank, Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), 264.
 See Alisa Childers, Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2020) and David Young, A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith (Renew.org, 2019).
 See Robert Stein, The Gospel According to Luke, The New American Commentary, vol. 24 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 246–248; see also, Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 329.
 It is helpful to know the exact Greek phraseology in this passage because the old KJV translation confused some people and made them wonder if the warning is over continuous sin or just one sin. Paul Ellingworth and Eugene Nida’s scholarly work A Translator’s Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews (New York: United Bible Societies, 1983) helps. They write, “The key word of this passage is purposely, which is the first word in the Greek sentence. The ‘sinning’ is not only deliberate but repeated and continued, as go on sinning shows; similarly, NEB ‘if we persist in sin.’ If we purposely go on sinning may be rendered as ‘if we decide we want to go on sinning,’ or ‘if we make our plans so that we can go on sinning,’ or . . . ‘continue in sin’” (530–532). See also Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
For more on this important topic, download the free ebook by Bobby Harrington called Eternal Security or Faithful Faith?