A Leap From Faith
Updated: Jan 3
You've probably heard the phrase once saved, always saved—but does scripture support such a sentiment? The answer is both complicated and controversial, but I firmly believe that the Bible does indeed provide that answer without contradiction. If true, then there's nothing to worry about. But if that doctrine is false, then many stand at the precipice of disaster under the misguided notion that gravity doesn't apply to them.
I honestly don't know what I grew up believing on this subject, but I was certainly aware of the doctrine of Once Saved, Always Saved. However, when I started investigating the scriptures, I quickly came across some troubling passages which seemed difficult, if not impossible to reconcile with it. I had no horse in the race and no bias to confirm, just simple curiosity which sparked yet another journey through the pages of the Bible. I'll get to the proof texts which are used to support the doctrine in a minute, but first let's examine some rather stark and strong passages that are hard to ignore.
"Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold." -Mar 4:3-8*
This first text is such a well-known passage, but have we really looked at what Jesus is saying in the Parable of the Sower? There are four case studies here: 1. Seed which did not enter the soil, but was eaten by birds, 2. Seed which was planted in rocky soil, had no depth and withered away, 3. Seed which was planted among thorns and yielded no fruit, and 4. Seed which was planted in good soil and produced fruit. It's important to note that in three out of the four cases, the seed was received by the soil. Reading verse 15, you could make a case that all four instances involved the soil receiving the seed as most versions translate the phrase as "that was sown in their hearts." But the Greek word "en" here can also mean on, by, or at, so I'll stick with the imagery of the parable itself. Clearly nothing happened in the case of the seed that was eaten by birds—there was no indication of the seed taking root—it simply fell by the wayside. But in each of the other three instances, the seeds take root and grow. That means the soil received it and transformation began to take place. In other words, these three categories of people received the Gospel—they became "saved." If the Once Saved, Always Saved doctrine is correct, all three cases should result in a positive outcome, but what we see is that in two of those three cases, the plant fails. Verse 17 leaves little question of the state of salvation here.
"...and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away." -Mar 4:17
The phrase "fall away" is an important one when discussing salvation as scripture often warns of it. Of course the question is, why would Jesus warn of falling away from the faith if such a thing were impossible? One of the major signs of the end times warned about is the "great falling away"—widespread apostasy which affects the church.
Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. -2 Th 2:3-4
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons... Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you. -1 Ti 4:1 & 16
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. -2 Ti 4:3-4
These warnings against false teaching, false doctrines and false gospels are all over in the New Testament, but if the Once Saved, Always Saved doctrine is correct, they would merely be warnings against the error of holding bad theology and would in no way affect the status of your salvation. Of course your theology doesn't operate in isolation, it has an enormous impact on your worldview, orthopraxy, and behavior. If someone's theology is that of Deism for example, they are not saved. As James 2:19 states, even demons believe in God. If someone believes in Universalism, and not in Jesus, their theology also has dire consequences. So to act like bad theology has no effect on your salvation is a bit foolhardy—clearly there is a lot of theology that can absolutely lead to your damnation. The Bible uses pretty strong language when issuing these warnings—they allude to death, not merely a less effective witness for Christ. "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them." -Act 20:29-31
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme. -1 Ti 1:18-20
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS, AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME." For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief. -Heb 3:12-19
If those passages weren't strong enough, the next two are quite remarkable. Before I quote them, it is important to realize that both of them are speaking as warnings to believers—those who are already "saved."
Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits. For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned. -Heb 6:1-8 (emphasis added)
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet. These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, "A DOG RETURNS TO ITS OWN VOMIT," and, "A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire." -2 Pe 2 (emphasis added)
These two passages don't just allude to death, but to the Second Death—The Lake of Fire. Peter—in typical Peter fashion—is particularly incendiary, invoking imagery of hell, the destruction of the Nephilim, the flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah as what lies ahead of those who depart from the faith and lead others astray. This chapter is quite possibly the most vehement and severe condemnation of any group of people in all of scripture and it's leveled at apostates, claiming their fate is actually worse than that of unbelievers. Being granted eternal life at the Day of Judgement (if salvation cannot be lost) doesn't exactly fit that description.
The Cross Examination
I have heard numerous arguments claiming that these passages are actually not referring to believers, but none of them are very convincing. Much hand-waving and playing with words is done, but it's difficult to explain away the plain text of these passages. For example, one argument claims they are talking about people who have an intellectual knowledge of God, but have not yet committed to Christ. But the passage in Hebrews claims these people have partaken of the Holy Spirit and that they cannot be brought to repentance again—that means they did so once already. The Peter passage claims these people have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—how can one be set free of the sin of the world prior to or apart from salvation? Furthermore, lots of people who have an intellectual knowledge of God, but who have not yet made a commitment to Christ, do actually take that step further down the road. If we were to interpret these passages the way the Once Saved, Always Saved crowd argue, we would have to conclude that anyone who is presented with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and understands it, but doesn't immediately give their life to Jesus, cannot do so at a later date—they are beyond redemption at that point. That is preposterous and would invalidate an enormous amount of conversions throughout church history. The Celtic church was famous for a "belong before you become" ministry philosophy which encouraged non believers to be a part of their monastic community before actually converting to Christ.
Another common argument I hear is that these people appeared to be saved, but they never truly were. They talked the talk, they even walked much of the walk, but their heart was never truly committed to Christ. This is a dangerous game to play as it calls any and every conversion into question. Someone can pray the prayer, claim Jesus Christ is Lord, walk in some freedom, bear some fruit but still not be saved. What then becomes of the litmus test prescribed in First John?
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. -1Jn 4:2-3
This argument actually puts your faith in an even more precarious and questionable place. Not only could others be deceived regarding your name's inclusion in the Lamb's Book of Life, but it actually creates a great amount of doubt within yourself as well. Did you really mean it when you asked Jesus to forgive your sins? How penitent were you? How can you know for sure? This leads to endless responses to altar calls, multiple baptisms and constant second guessing. This position undermines its own argument as it basically concedes that for all intents and purposes and from the perspective of man, salvation is not assured—only God truly knows. But it goes even further by removing any ability to test the fruit—salvation becomes a mysterious and unknowable process which one can never really be sure of.
The Usual Suspects
Now, that doesn't mean that the Once Saved, Always Saved adherents don't have a case. They do indeed have several scriptures they can point to which definitely indicate that we have security in, and assurance of our salvation. This is important as Christianity lies in stark contrast to say, Islam, which gives no such assurance. Allah is quite fickle and can deny paradise to even the most ardent and devout Muslim. In fact, the only way to ensure your salvation in Islam is death in Jihad—which is why so many Muslims are willing to strap explosives to their chest. The God of the Bible on the other hand is utterly faithful and consistent. He does not change His mind on a whim, He honors His word, and He doesn't move the goalposts of salvation depending on His mood. So let's take a look at these important and comforting promises.
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. -Rom 8:29-30
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Rom 8:38-39
"I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand." -Joh 10:28-29
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. -Eph 4:30
These passages (and others) are also pretty straight-forward and therefore appear to conflict with the "falling away" passages. I do not dispute what these passages clearly state nor will I engage in mental gymnastics to produce interpretations which contradict the plain text. They affirm that God is faithful to complete the process which He started (Php 1:6) and that no third-party power or authority is capable of overriding God's claim on your life. We have assurance of salvation though Jesus Christ as all authority has been given to Him and no name is higher. His faithfulness is beyond dispute or question.
The Elephant in the Room
What these passages do not address is the nature of your own free will. Without getting into the finer points of Calvinism, most would agree that in order to enter into the Kingdom of God, one must actually accept the gift of salvation and choose Christ. The power of free will is so great, that a mortal being actually has the ability to reject the omnipotent creator of the universe and His limitless love. Clearly free will is a force to be reckoned with and one which God respects and honors regardless of the often dire consequences. So if man must opt-in to salvation, he must also be able to opt-out... at any point. That means that while God is utterly faithful and will never change His mind, the same cannot be said of man and therefore we can shipwreck our faith as Paul's companions did. This basic biblical concept of free will brings all of the above passages into alignment, removing any appearance of conflict or contradiction. It does leave one with a slight uneasiness however as you realize the immense potential for catastrophe you hold in your hands. The biblical warnings about keeping the faith, persevering to the end, and not falling away are neither hollow nor hypothetical.
Some may question the idea that our free will to leave our relationship with Christ aligns with the biblical texts in question here, so let's examine them more closely. The first Romans passage, appears to argue that an uninterruptible chain of events takes place not just at the time of conversion, but actually long before you actually chose Christ. But setting aside the whole Predestination versus Free Will argument, does this passage teach the Once Saved, Always Saved doctrine? Again, it certainly states that God is faithful in His part of the bargain, but that's it. It is stating that God's word can be taken to the bank. That bank is utterly trustworthy and capable of keeping the contents of your safe deposit box protected from thieves and robbers and even internal mismanagement. Your safety deposit box contents are backed by a 100% ironclad guarantee. That guarantee does not preclude your ability to waltz in, remove the contents of your safety deposit box and walk out unimpeded however. The bank protects against unauthorized removal of contents, not authorized—it's your safety deposit box.
This understanding explains the second Romans passage and the John passage as well. Note that what is conspicuously missing in that list of things which can't separate us from the love of God is your own free will. On the contrary, a person's free will is the only thing which separates them from the love of God and condemns them to judgement. So to argue Once Saved, Always Saved is essentially to remove free will after the point of conversion. You no longer have a choice—you are locked into salvation even if God has to drag you kicking and screaming through those big pearly gates Himself.
The Ephesians passage speaks of "sealing" us for the day of redemption, which does sound rather permanent and unalterable. But again, any pact or sealed contract can be broken by one or both parties. The act of sealing a document does not guarantee against breach of contract—it does guarantee penalties for doing so however. Scripture is painfully clear that God will honor His end of the bargain and His seal and His word is more sure than the grave, but the Bible is also replete with evidence that man's word means very little. We are a notoriously shifty bunch who consistently betray God, abandon His precepts and break our covenants. If there is one utterly persistent image presented of our relationship with God in the Bible, it is that of the faithful husband and the fickle harlot. And what is the one biblically-sanctioned and legitimate breach of contract that justifies termination of marriage vows? Unfaithfulness. Now, God pursues us even when we are unfaithful, so I'm not downplaying God's relentlessness whatsoever. But His pursuit must be reciprocated in order to produce relationship. He will pursue and persist as He is utterly faithful, but there are limitations placed on His pursuit—namely our free will and time. We each have our own personal time frames to respond to God's pursuit (your lifetime), but the world also has an expiration date which cuts off God's ability to add souls to the kingdom of heaven.
So moving past the biblical arguments, we get to the practical ones. The next problem people have with the notion that one can actually choose to leave the faith is one of incredulity. Why would someone make that choice? How could someone who has experienced the love, forgiveness, freedom and peace of God make a conscious decision to forsake it all? But it doesn't take much imagination to conceive of ways the enemy could use situations and circumstances to turn people against their God—he does it daily. The fact that I don't understand what would drive a mother to murder her infant doesn't mean that it doesn't or can't happen (it's actually a very common occurrence in America via abortion). Satan uses self-righteousness, trauma, pain, loss, perceived slights and injustices, and a host of other people, events and circumstances to twist and damage people so profoundly, that pride, bitterness, anger, and hurt drive them to make all kinds of self-destructive decisions. But there's no need to ponder the hypothetical here as scripture gives a very clear answer to whether or not full knowledge of, and deep relationship with God is so powerfully fulfilling that it precludes the possibility of a conscious choice to turn against Him... Witness the case of Satan and the fallen angels.
The Verdict: Lose Versus Leave
So can you lose your salvation? Well, that's an odd phrasing of the issue. You can't misplace it like your car keys. It is a sealed contract between yourself and the God of all creation who has proven Himself faithful time and time again. As such, we can have assurance that He will not breach that contract. We also can be assured that there is no third party or power which can overrule God's authority in that contract. And finally, we can be sure that there is no clause written into that contract which allows God to sell it off to another entity like a packaged mortgage. What there are no guarantees against however is you. You are the wild card. You have the power of free will which allows for you to break any and all contractual agreements. But to do so requires a conscious choice. You can't come to salvation unwittingly or accidentally and neither can you lose salvation in such a manner. The dark and insidious path which would lead you to such a precipice could certainly start subtle and appear safe, but the leap from faith into the abyss is a decision that is made with the awareness and witness of one's conscience. It is not a case of falling off the mountain, but of jumping off the cliff.
*All references quoted in this article are from the NASB translation