Thursday, March 19, 2009

Can Christians Lose Salvation?

This question is one that can be difficult to answer. People will attempt to take a snippet of Scripture to make it say whatever they want. This problem occurs when people use a single Bible passage and attempt to adopt it as an element of a teaching without reviewing similar passages for consistency. However, when we have multiple passages that provide a pattern, then we can infer the truth of the Bible from that pattern. The following information was copied almost verbatim from Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, pages 794-803. Rather than attempt to make the points myself, Grudem has already provided very clear explanations of passages that have tended to confuse people, so there was no need to start my own independent assessment.


Is it always clear which people in the church have genuine saving faith and which have only an intellectual persuasion of the truth of the gospel but no genuine faith in their hearts? It is not always easy to tell, and Scripture mentions in several places that unbelievers in fellowship with the visible church can give some external signs or indications that make them look or sound like genuine believers. For example, Judas, who betrayed Christ, must have acted almost exactly like the other disciples during the three years he was with Jesus. So convincing was his conformity to the behavior pattern of the other disciples, that at the end of the three years of Jesus’ ministry, when he said that one of his disciples would betray him, they did not all turn to and suspect Judas, but they rather “began to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” (Matthew 26:22, Mark 14:19, Luke 22:23, John 13:22). However, Jesus Himself knew that there was no genuine faith in Judas’ heart, because he said at one point, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). John later wrote in his gospel that “Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him” (John 6:64). But the disciples themselves did not know.

Paul also speaks of “false brethren secretly brought in” (Galatians 2:4), and says that in his journey he has been “in danger from false brethren” (2 Corinthians 11:26). He also says that the servants of Satan “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:15). This does not mean that all unbelievers in the church who nevertheless give some signs of true conversion are servants of Satan secretly undermining the work of the church, for some may be in process of considering the claims of the gospel and moving toward real faith, others may have heard only an inadequate explanation of the gospel message, and other may not have come under genuine conviction of the Holy Spirit yet. But Paul’s statements do not mean that some unbelievers in the church will be false brothers and sisters sent to disrupt the fellowship, while others will simply be unbelievers who will eventually come to genuine saving faith. In both cases, however, they give several external signs that make them look like genuine believers.

We can see this also in Jesus’ statement about what will happen at the last judgment:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Although these people prophesied and cast out demons and did “many mighty works” in Jesus’ name, the ability to do such works did not guarantee that they were Christians. Jesus says, “I never knew you.” He does not say, “I knew you at one time but I no longer know you,” nor “I knew you at one time but you strayed about from me,” but rather, “I never knew you.” They never were genuine believers.

A similar teaching is found in the parable of the sower. Jesus says, “Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away.” (Mark 4:5-6). Jesus explains that the seed sown upon rocky ground represents people who “when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” (Mark 4:16-17). The fact that “they have no root in themselves” indicates that there is no source of life within these plants; similarly, the people represented by them have no genuine life of their own within. They have an appearance of conversion and they apparently have become “Christians” because they receive the word “with joy,” but when difficulty comes, they are nowhere to be found – their apparent conversion was not genuine and there was no real saving faith in their hearts.

The importance of continuing in faith is also affirmed in the parable of Jesus as the vine, in which Christians are portrayed as branches (John 15:1-7). Jesus says:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does not bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. . . . If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:1 2, 6).

Arminians have argued that the branches that do not bear fruit are still true branches on the vine – Jesus refers to “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit” (v2). Therefore, the branches that are gathered and thrown into the fire and burned must refer to true believers that were once part of the vine but fell away and became subject to eternal judgment. But that is not a necessary implication of Jesus’ teaching at this point. The imagery of the vine used in this parable is limited in how much detail it can teach. In fact, if Jesus had wanted to teach that there were true and false believers associated with him, and if he wanted to use an analogy of a vine and branches, then the only way he could refer to the people who do not have genuine life in themselves would be to speak of branches that bear no fruit (somewhat after the analogy of the seeds that fell on rocky ground and had “no root in themselves” in Mark 4:17). Here in John 15 the branches that do not bear fruit, though they are in some way connected to Jesus and give an outward appearance of being genuine branches, nonetheless give indication of their true state by the fact that they bear no fruit. This is similarly indicated by the fact that the person “does not abide” in Christ (John 15:6) and is cast off as a branch and withers. If we try to press the analogy any further, by saying, for example, that all branches on a vine really are alive or they would not be there in the first place, then we are simply trying to press the analogy beyond what it is able to teach – and in that case there would be nothing in the analogy that could represent false believers in any case. The point of the imagery is simply that those who bear fruit thereby give evidence that they are abiding in Christ; those who do not are not abiding in him.

Finally, there are two passages in Hebrews that also affirm that those who finally fall away may give many external signs of conversion and may look in many ways like Christians. The first of these, Hebrews 6:4-6, has frequently been used by Arminians as proof that believers can lose their salvation. But on closer inspection such an interpretation is not convincing. The author of Hebrews writes:
“For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6).

The author of Hebrews continues with an example from agriculture:
“For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned.” (Hebrews 6:7-8).

In this agricultural metaphor, those who receive final judgment are compared to land that bears no vegetation or useful fruit, but rather bears thorns and thistles. When we recall the other metaphors in Scripture where good fruit is a sign of true spiritual life and fruitlessness is a sign of false believers (for example, Matthew 3:8-10, 7:15-20, 12:33-35), we already have an indication that the author is speaking of people whose most trustworthy evidence of their spiritual condition (the fruit they bear) is negative, suggesting that the author is talking about people who are not genuinely Christians.

Some have objected that the long description of things that have happened to these people who fall away means that they must have been genuinely born again. But that is not a convincing objection when we look at the individual terms used. The author says they have “one been enlightened” (Hebrews 6:4). But this enlightening simply means that they came to understand the truths of the gospel, not that they responded to those truths with genuine saving faith.

Similarly, the word once that is used to speak of those who “have once been enlightened” is the Greek term hapax, which is used, for example, in Philipians 4:16 of the Philippians’ sending Paul a gift “once and again,” and in Hebrews 9:7 of entrance in the Holy of Holies “once a year.” Therefore, this word does not mean that something happened “once” and can never be repeated, but simply that it happened once, without specifying whether it will be repeated or not.

The text further states that these people “have tasted the heavenly gift” and that they “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” (Hebrews 6:4-5). Inherent in the idea of tasting is the fact that the tasting is temporary and one might or not decide to accept the thing that is tasted. For example, the same Greek word geuomai is used in Matthew 27:34 to say that those crucifying Jesus “offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.” The word is also used in a figurative sense meaning “come to know something.” If we understand it in this figurative sense, as it must be understood here since the passage is not talking about literally tasting literal food, then it means that people have come to understand the heavenly gift (which probably means here that they had experienced some of the power of the Holy Spirit at work) and to know something of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come. It does not necessarily mean that they had (or did not have) genuine saving faith, but may simply mean that they came to understand it and have some experience of spiritual power.

The text also further says that these people “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 6:4). The question here is the exact meaning of the word metochos, which is here translated “partaker.” It is not always clear to English-speaking readers that this term has a range of meaning and may imply very close participation and attachment, or may only imply a loose association with the other person or people named. For example, the context shows that in Hebrews 3:14 to become a “partaker” of Christ means to have a very close participation with him in a saving relationship. On the other hand, metochos can also be used in a much looser sense, simply to refer to associates or companions. We read that when the disciples took in a great catch of fish so that their nets were breaking, “they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them.” (Luke 5:7). Here it simply refers to those who were companions or partners with Peter and the other disciples in their fishing work. Ephesians 5:7 uses a closely related word (symmetochos, a compound of metochos and the preposition syn [“with”]) when Paul warns Christians about sinful acts of unbelievers and says, “do not associate with them.” (Ephesians 5:7). He is not concerned that their total nature will be transformed by the unbelievers, but simply that they will associate with them and have their witness compromised and their own lives influenced to some degree by them.

By analogy, Hebrews 6:4-6 speaks of people who have been “associated with” the Holy Spirit, and thereby had their lives influenced by Him, but it need not imply that they had a redeeming work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, or that they were regenerated. By similar analogy with the example of the fishing companions in Luke 57, Peter and the disciples could be associated with them and even to some degree influenced by them without having a thoroughgoing change of life caused by that association. The very word metochos allows for a range of influence from fairly weak to fairly strong, for it only means “one who participates with or shares with or accompanies in some activity.” This was apparently what had happened to these people spoken of in Hebrews 6, who have been associated with the church and as such associated with the work of the Holy Spirit, and no doubt had been influenced by him in some ways in their lives.

Finally, the text says that it is impossible “to restore again to repentance” people who have experienced these things and have then committed apostasy. Some have argued that if this is a repentance to which they need to be restored again, then it must be genuine repentance. But this is not necessarily the case. First, we must realize that repentance (Greek metanoia) does not need to refer to inward heart repentance unto salvation. For example, Hebrews 12:17 uses this word to speak of a change of mind that Esau sought concerning the sale of his birthright, and refers to it as repentance (metanoia). This would not have been a repentance for salvation, but simply a change of mind and an undoing of the transaction regarding his birthright. (Note also the example of Judas’ repentance in Matthew 27:3 – howbeit with a different Greek word).

The cognate verb “to repent” (Greek metanoeo) is sometimes used to refer not to saving repentance, but just to sorrow for individual offenses in Luke 17:3-4: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in a day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” We conclude that “repentance” simply means a sorrow for actions that have been done or for sins that have been committed. Whether or not it is a genuine saving repentance, a “repentance unto salvation,” may not be always evident right away. The author of Hebrews is not concerned to specify whether it is genuine repentance or not. He is simply saying that if someone has a sorrow for sin and comes to understand the gospel and experiences these various blessings of the Holy Spirit’s work (no doubt in fellowshiop with the church), and then turns away, it will not be possible to restore such a person again to a place of sorrow for sins. But this does not necessarily imply that the repentance was genuine saving repentance in the first place.

At this point we may ask what kind of person is described by all of these terms. These are no doubt people who have been affiliated closely with the fellowship of the church. The have had some sorrow for sin (repentance). They have clearly understood the gospel (they have been enlightened). They have come to appreciate the attractiveness of the Christian life and the change that comes about in people’s lives because of becoming a Christian, and they have probably had answers to prayer in their own lives and felt the power of the Holy Spirit at work, perhaps even using some spiritual gifts in the manner of the unbelievers in Matthew 7:22 (they have become “associated with” the work of the Holy Spirit or have become “partakers” of the Holy Spirit and have tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the age to come). They have been exposed to the true preaching of the Word and have appreciated much of its teachings (they have tasted the goodness of the Word of God).

But then in spite of all this, if they “commit apostasy” and “crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:6), then they are willfully rejecting all of these blessings and turning decidedly against them. Perhaps all of us have known in our own churches people who (sometimes by their own profession) have long been affiliated with the fellowship of the church but are not themselves born again Christians. They have thought about the gospel for years and have continued to resist the wooing of the Holy Spirit in their lives, perhaps through an unwillingness to give up lordship of their lives to Jesus and preferring to cling to it themselves.

Now the author tells us that if these people willfully turn away from all of these temporary blessings, then it will be impossible to restore them again to any kind of repentance or sorrow for sin. Their hearts will be hardened and their consciences calloused. What more could be done to bring them to salvation? If we tell them Scripture is true they will say that they know it but they have decided to reject it. If we tell them God answers prayer and changes lives they will respond that they know that as well, but they want nothing of it. If we tell them that the Holy Spirit is powerful to work in people’s lives and the gift of eternal life is good beyond description, they will say that they understand that, but they want nothing of it. Their repeated familiarity with the things of God and their experience of many influences of the Holy Spirit has simply served to harden them against conversion.

Now the author of Hebrews knows that there are some in the community to which he writes who are in danger of falling away in just this way (see Hebrews 2:3; 3:8, 12, 14-15; 4:1, 7, 11; 10:26, 29, 35-36, 38-39; 12:3, 15-17). He wants to warn them that, though they have participated in the fellowship of the church and experienced a number of God’s blessings in their lives, yet if they fall away after all that, there is no salvation for them. This does not imply that he thinks that true Christians could fall away – Hebrews 3:14 implies quite the opposite. Be he wants them to gain assurance of salvation through their continuing in faith, and thereby implies that if they fall away it would show that they never were Christ’s people in the first place (Hebrews 3:6: “We are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope”).

Therefore the author wants to give a sincere warning to those in danger of slipping away from their Christian profession. He wants to use the strongest language possible to say, “Here is how far a person can come in experiencing temporary blessings and will not really be saved.” He is warning them to watch out, because depending on temporary blessings and experiences is not enough. To do this he talks not of any true change of heart or any good fruit produced, but simply about the temporary blessings and experiences that have come to these people and have given them some understanding of Christianity.

For this reason he immediately passes from this description of those who commit apostasy to a further analogy that shows that these people who fell away never had any genuine fruit in their lives. As we explained above, verses 7-8 speak of these people in terms of “thorns and thistles,” the kind of crop that is brought forth on land that has no worthwhile life in itself even though it receives repeated blessings from God (in terms of the analogy, even though rain frequently falls upon it). We should notice here that people who commit apostasy are not compared to a field that once bore good fruit and now does not, but that they are like land that never bore good fruit, but only thorns and thistles. The land may look good before the crops start to come up, but the fruit gives the genuine evidence, and it is bad.

Strong support for this interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-8 is found in the verse immediately following. Though the author has been speaking very harshly about the possibility of falling away, he then returns to speak to the situation of the great majority of hearers, whom he thinks to be genuine Christians. He says, “Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation” (Hebrews 6:9). But the question is “better things” than what? The plural “better things” forms an appropriate contrast to the “good things” that have been mentioned in verses 4-6: the author is convinced that most of his readers have experienced better things than simply partial and temporary influences of the Holy Spirit and the church talked about in verses 4-6.

In fact, the author talks about these things by saying (literally) that they are “better things, also belonging to salvation” (Greek kai echomena soterias). In this way the Greek word kai (“also”) shows that salvation is something that was not part of the things mentioned in verses 4-6 above. Therefore, this word kai, which is not explicitly translated in the RSV or NIV (but the NASB comes close), provides a crucial key for understanding the passage. If the author had meant to say that the people mentioned in verses 4-6 were truly saved, then it is very difficult to understand why he would say in verse 9 that he is convinced of better things for them, things that belong to salvation, or that have salvation in addition to those things mentioned above. He thus shows that he can use a brief phrase to say that people “have salvation” if he wishes to do so (he does not need to pile up many phrases), and he shows, moreover, that the people whom he speaks of in verses 4-6 are not saved.

What exactly are those “better things”? In addition to salvation mentioned in verse 9, they are things that give real evidence of salvation – genuine fruit in their lives (verse 10), full assurance of hope (verse 11), and saving faith, of the type exhibited by those who inherit the promises (verse 12). In this way he reassures those who are genuine believers – those who show fruit in their lives and show love for other Christians, who show hope and genuine faith that is continuing at the present time, and who are not about to fall away. He wants to reassure these readers (who are certainly the great majority of the ones to whom he writes) while still issuing a strong warning to those among them who may be in danger of falling away.

A similar teaching is found in Hebrews 10:26-31. There the author says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left” (verse 26 NIV). A person who rejects Christ’s salvation and “has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him” (verse 29 NIV) deserves eternal punishment. This again is a strong warning against falling away, but it should not be taken as proof that someone who has truly been born again can lose his or her salvation. When the author talks about the blood of the covenant “that sanctified him,” the word sanctified is used simply to refer to “external sanctification, like that of the ancient Israelites, by outward connection with God’s people.” The passage does not talk about someone who is genuinely saved, but someone who has received some beneficial moral influence through contact with the church.

One other passage in John’s writings has been claimed to teach the possibility of loss of salvation. In Revelation 3:5, Jesus says, “He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life.” Some have claimed that when Jesus says this He implies that it is possible that he would blot out the names of some people from the book of life, people who had already had their names written in it and were thus already saved. But the fact that Jesus emphatically states that he will not do something should be taken as teaching that he will do that same thing in other cases. The same kind of Greek construction is used to give an emphatic negation in John 10:28, where Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” This does not mean that there are some of Jesus’ sheep who do not hear his voice and follow him and who will perish; it is simply affirming that his sheep certainly will not perish. Similarly, when God says, “I will never fail you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5), it does not imply that he will leave or forsake others; it just emphatically states that he will not leave nor forsake his people. Or, in even a closer parallel, in Matthew 12:32, Jesus says, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” This does not imply that some sins will be forgiven in the age to come (as Roman Catholics claim in support for the doctrine of purgatory) – that is simply an error in reasoning: to say that something will not happen in the age to come does not imply that it might happen in the age to come. In the same way, Revelation 3:5 is just a strong assurance that those who are clad in white garments and who have remained faithful to Christ will not have their names blotted out of the book of life.

Finally, one passage from the Old Testament is sometimes used to argue that people can lose their salvation: the story of the Holy Spirit departing from King Saul. But Saul should not be taken as an example of someone who lost his salvation, for when “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul” (1 Samuel 16:14), it was immediately after Samuel had anointed David king and “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). In fact, the Spirit of the Lord coming upon David is reported in the immediately previous sentence to the one in which we read that the Spirit departed from Saul. This close connection means that Scripture is not here talking about a total loss of all work of the Holy Spirit in Saul’s life, but simply about the withdrawing of the Holy Spirit’s function empowering Saul as king. But that does not mean that Saul was eternally condemned. It is simply very hard to tell from the pages of the Old Testament whether Saul, throughout his life, was a) an unregenerate man who had leadership capabilities and was used by God as a demonstration of the fact that someone worthy to be king in the eyes of the world was not thereby suited to be king over the Lord’s people, or b) a regenerate man with poor understanding and a life that increasingly strayed from the Lord.


So how do we know if we have a genuine salvation? See related link HERE.