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Question and Answer

Can Salvation Be Lost?

Question:

Please comment on the doctrine of loss of salvation. Can people lose their salvation or is it "once saved, always saved"?

Answer:

On this subject our Confession of Faith has a wonderfully complete yet concise summary of what the Bible teaches, Chapter 17 "Of the Perseverance of the Saints" (which is well studied with the following chapter on Assurance of Grace and Salvation). Here I copy Chapter 17 from our website, with the Scripture support:

Westminster Confession of Faith:

I. They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.[1]

II. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father;[2] upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ,[3] the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them,[4] and the nature of the covenant of grace:[5] from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.[6]

III. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins;[7] and, for a time, continue therein:[8] whereby they incur God's displeasure,[9] and grieve his Holy Spirit,[10] come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts,[11] have their hearts hardened,[12] and their consciences wounded;[13] hurt and scandalize others,[14] and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.[15]

Scripture:

[1] Philippians 1:6. Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:10. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall. John 10:28-29. And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. 1 John 3:9. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 1 Peter 1:5, 9. Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.... Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.

[2] 2 Timothy 2:18-19. Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. Jeremiah 31:3. The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.

[3] Hebrews 10:10, 14. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.... For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Hebrews 13:20-21. Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. Hebrews 9:12-15. Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. Romans 8:33-39. Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. John 17:11, 24. And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.... Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. Luke 22:32. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. Hebrews 7:25. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.

[4] John 14:16-17. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. 1 John 2:27. But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him. 1 John 3:9. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

[5] Jeremiah 32:40. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.

[6] John 10:28. And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. 2 Thessalonians 3:3. But the Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil. 1 John 2:19. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

[7] Matthew 26:70, 72, 74. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest.... And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man.... Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.

[8] Psalm 51 (title). To the chief muscian, A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Psalm 51:14. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

[9] Isaiah 64:5, 7, 9. Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways: behold, thou art wroth; for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved.... And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.... Be not wroth very sore, O LORD, neither remember iniquity for ever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people. 2 Samuel 11:27. And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.

[10] Ephesians 4:30. And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.

[11] Psalm 51:8, 10, 12. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.... Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.... Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. Revelation 2:4. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Song of Solomon 5:2-4, 6. I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.... I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.

[12] Isaiah 63:17. O LORD, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear? Return for thy servants' sake, the tribes of thine inheritance. Mark 6:52. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened. Mark 16:14. Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.

[13] Psalm 32:3-4. When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Psalm 51:8. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

[14] 2 Samuel 12:14. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.

[15] Psalm 89:31-32. If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. 1 Corinthians 11:32. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.

I hope you are not put off by my citing the chapter and proofs in full. Let me add, on this subject, what I have given the congregation I serve as a bulletin insert on this subject:

The Bible teaches that when God saves a sinner He saves him or her for keeps (John 6:37-40, 10:27-30, Rom. 8:29-39, Phil. 1:6, 1 Peter 1:3-5, etc.). There is great comfort in this truth, because it means that our security does not rest in our own feeble strength but in almighty God and His sure promises.

The Bible also talks about people who profess Christ and are counted among His people, but fall away and are lost. Sober warnings challenge us to persevere in the faith and not take God's grace for granted, lest we come under eternal condemnation—for example, Hebrews 3:12-14, 6:4-6, 10:26,27, Matthew 7:21-23, etc. Do these passages teach that one can be saved by faith and later lost his salvation through unbelief and willful sin? If salvation cannot be lost, then what are these warnings—just hypothetical exercises in rhetoric, or what?

To grasp the unity of these seemingly contradictory teachings, we need to make a couple of important and biblical distinctions.

First between true and false conversion. The Bible recognizes that not everyone who says he believes in Christ really does. This is one of the points of the Parable of the Sower (Matt.13:3-23), namely that not all who respond positively to the Word will prove to be lasting, genuine and fruitful. This is our Lord's warning in Matthew 7:21-23, that no everyone who claims Him as Lord and expects to go to heaven is regarded by Him as genuine. True conversion, which is the work of God's Spirit in the heart, shows itself in genuine faith in Christ and a changed life ("new birth," "new creation," "new man"). All who are born again by the Spirit profess faith in Christ. But not all who profess faith in Christ are born again. It is vital to understand this distinction in our day of decisionism and "easy believism". Just because someone has an emotional religious experience, makes some kind of decision for Jesus, and perhaps is baptized and joins a church, does not necessarily mean he is converted. Psychological factors lead many people to make insincere or shallow commitments to Christ that the passage of time (the trials and seductions of life) proves to be false. [It is wrong for preachers to psychologically manipulate peel into decisions rather than simply calling them to repent and trust in Christ, 1 Cor. 2:1-5, 2 Cor. 4:1,2.] The Apostle John makes this clear in 1 John 2:18,19: "... even now many antichrists have arisen ... They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would not have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us." The Bible doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is not that everyone who makes a decision for Jesus is saved forever and eternally secure. The Bible doctrine is that everyone who is truly converted by the power of God's Spirit and genuinely believes in Christ is saved forever and cannot be lost.

This distinction also answers those who say that the doctrine of "eternal security" or "perseverance of the saints" encourages sin ("If I believe I'm going to heaven no matter what because I believe in Jesus, then I can sin and not worry about it"). But salvation is not giving a free ticket to heaven to everyone who says, "I believe in Jesus." Salvation is a life-changing work of God's mighty grace that not only produces faith in Christ but also changes our hearts and shows itself in a changed and changing life (Rom. 6:1,2). We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone (Gal. 5:6). Christians still sin, struggle with temptation, and often fall, but we are no longer the slaves of sin (Rom. 6:17,18) and are led by the Spirit (8:13-16) who works in us to will and to do according to God's good pleasure (Phil. 2:12,13). A person who says, "Because I believe in Jesus I can sin however I want and still go to heaven" is reprobate and not converted (Jude 4). There is no eternal security for hypocrites. This leads to the second important distinction.

God's vantage point versus ours. God has an infallible knowledge of all who are truly His (2 Tim. 2:19). But we do not have such knowledge, since man knows the outward appearance and not the heart. We "know them by their fruits." On this basis, we receive into the church and regard as Christian brethren all who profess faith in Christ and give good indication of wanting to live for Him. We cannot insist on infallible proofs of genuine conversion (the New England Puritans got into serious problems when they tried to govern the church that way). We properly regard all who are in the church as believers who have been bought with the blood of Christ. It is on this basis that the Bible speaks of apostates who leave the church as "trampling under foot the Son of God and regard[ing] as unclean the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified" (Heb. 10:29), or as "denying the Master who bought them" (2 Pet. 2:1). On the basis of their profession, they were properly regarded as among the company of those who were bought by the blood of Jesus. Similarly, while God graciously gives to His children "an infallible assurance of faith" and a "[certain assurance] that they are in a state of grace" (WCF 12.1,2, Romans 8:15,16), that assurance is based first and above all on the promises of God and the work of Christ, but also in part on the evidence of salvation in the life. Deliberate sin grieves and quenches the Spirit (Eph. 4:30, 1 Thess.5:19), so that true believers may lose assurance. The warning of Scripture tells us that though we have been assured by the Spirit of our salvation, we may not presume on that assurance in order to sin willfully. If we do so, we may find that we are among the self-deceived hypocrites. Rather the Scripture admonishes us to "make [our] calling and election sure" (2 Pet. 1:10 with preceding context) by being diligent to grown in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:2-9, 3:17,18). The warnings of Scripture are not hypothetical. They are meant to be taken seriously. True saints will all persevere in the faith (John 8:30,31; and then we will give thanks to God, not to ourselves, for preserving us by His grace!

I hope this very long answer is of help to you. Do feel free to come back with follow-up questions. May the Lord bless and guide you in His everlasting way.


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