THIS IS THE THIRD IN A SERIES OF FIVE “STICKY CONVERSATIONS”
By Ben Merold
I was making a call in the house of a family that had attended the church for the first time on the previous Sunday. I was greeted warmly, but as I started to sit down, I was told if I did not believe in “once saved, always saved” I might as well leave. In fact, the lady of the house informed me she doubted if I was a Christian if I did not hold to that doctrine.
A few weeks ago a young man was waiting for me as I came to the service. He wanted to accept Christ as his Savior but had been informed there was no use doing so if he did not accept the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” He did not fully understand the idea but could not believe what he did understand. Thankfully, an examination of the Scripture overruled all thoughts of delaying his decision for salvation.
Whether we refer to this teaching as “eternal security,” “once in grace, always in grace,” or “once saved, always saved,” it is a problem. The doctrine is preached so forcibly by many TV and radio preachers that it can mislead many who are not aware of the biblical teaching concerning redemption and Christian living. The idea that we can just believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and have salvation and eternal security opens the door to many problems within the church. Allow me to make four statements about this doctrine.
1. I believe there is security for the Christian.
Over the rather lengthy time of my ministry, I have met many who informed me they had been saved. However, they often go on to say that because of sin, or because of apathy toward the values of the Bible, they are now lost and need to be saved again. I have met those who have claimed salvation several times but now, in their opinion, need to be saved again.
Such an attitude is not in harmony with Bible teaching. We are in Christ if we truly claim him as our Savior and respond to the gospel message. As a believer, I have thrown myself on the grace of God. I was baptized into Christ and am now “in Christ.”
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26, 27*).
I find security in that passage of Scripture and others like it. I know there have been times I have been out of communion with God. This condition comes because of sin and the neglect of my Christian life. This experience may bring unhappiness or depression, but I am not lost. My relationship with God is not what it should be, but I am still his child and I need to discipline my Christian walk.
Here is a fact, a promise, and a warning:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1 John 1:8-10).
Scriptures like that give me great security. I can confess my sins and be forgiven and purified. As a Christian, I do sin. If I claim I do not, I make God out to be a liar and his Word has no place in my life. Thank God for the privilege of confession of sin for forgiveness.
2. I do not believe it is impossible to fall away.
There are a number of Scriptures that force me to believe in the possibility of apostasy. For instance, let this passage soak into your mind as you determine to accept it for what it says.
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and 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 turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit” and “a sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2:20-22).
This indicates that if we rebel against what brought us into Christ, we are worse off at the end than we were in the beginning.
I realize some will say the person who falls away was never really saved to start with. The Scripture does not say that.
Consider reading other Scriptures that include basically the same teaching. You would do well to study Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31. There are strong warnings here.
3. We should consider the biblical teaching about apostasy.
Apostasy, by simple definition, means “to renounce one’s faith.” It also means “to desert a cause” and often carries with it the idea of “turning to something else.”
The writer of Hebrews seems to refer to all of these meanings as he warns his readers to remain steadfast in Christ.
The apostle Paul warns Christians not to turn back to dependence on the Old Testament law: “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).
We can see that these people were renouncing their faith in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. They were deserting the cause and turning to something else—the Old Testament law. They were entering apostasy.
The small New Testament book of Jude is a stern warning against apostasy.
“For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4).
I know some will say, “Those people were never saved to start with.” I believe this is true in many cases, but you can’t make that fit every case where the Scripture speaks of falling away. What about those good people they enticed to follow them into this apostasy?
Consider this: If a person in Christ begins to turn away from the things that brought him or her into Christ, if he or she rebels against those things and turns toward something else, isn’t this apostasy? This Scripture is written to the church:
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5, 6).
I have known people who produced the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Yet they became caught up in sin, materialism, or complete apathy. Today they bear no fruit, show no faith, and have no consideration for the salvation they once experienced. Isn’t that apostasy?
4. The doctrine of “once saved, always saved” becomes less of an issue when Christians gain the assurance of their salvation.
I often ask, “Are you saved? Are you a citizen of Heaven?” I am grieved by the answers I hear. A person may respond, “I hope so,” or “I’m trying to be good enough.” Answers like these show that many people in our churches are still trusting in salvation by their good works. They have no real knowledge of the assurance that comes by the finished work of Jesus through the cross and the resurrection. They have never trusted completely in the concept of grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Assurance begins when we put our faith for salvation in Jesus Christ—and nothing else.
Assurance grows as we trust the Word of God, develop a prayer life, and enter into service for our Lord. But all of this must be based on the fact of having Jesus Christ as our Savior.
And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).
I would also direct you to 1 Peter 1:3-5, Jude 24, and 1 John 2:1, 2. These passages, among many others, have helped me gain assurance—and assurance based on the Bible is a much needed element in the Christian life.
I know I have not solved the problem of “once saved, always saved.” Books have been written giving complex doctrinal arguments for one side or the other, and the disagreements continue as they have for centuries. But if I can stimulate your thinking and motivate you to study and seek assurance, I will have accomplished what I set out to do.
Above all, I urge you to consider these two suggestions:
First, study the Bible on the subjects of security, apostasy, and assurance. Allow the Word of God to speak to your mind.
Second, do not use the disagreements over eternal security to condemn other Christians who hold a different position.
*All Scripture references are from the New International Version, ©1984.
Ben Merold is currently minister-at-large for Harvester Christian Church in St. Charles, Missouri. In 2008, he completed a 17-year ministry as senior minister of this church.
Steve Bond (Sparks, Nevada): I appreciate Ben pointing out the difficult passages in 2 Peter 2:20-22 and Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31. I had a wonderful Calvinistic theology professor in seminary who was asked about these passages in class. The texts obviously address the possibility of apostasy which runs counter to eternal security. The professor admitted this and then said, “When you eat fish and come across a bone, it’s better to put the bone up on the side of your plate instead of trying to eat it. This is what I do with those passages. They don’t fit my theological system and I can’t understand them—so I choose to simply put them aside for now.” Looking back, I have to admire my professor’s honesty! But I think Ben has chosen a more biblical path by accepting the passages at face value.
I also appreciate Ben’s emphasis in the security believers have in Christ. If we accept the possibility of apostasy it does not mean we must constantly worry about losing our salvation. Ben has demonstrated very convincingly that when we are in Christ, our salvation is secure because of God’s grace.
Jack Cottrell (Cincinnati, Ohio): I definitely agree with brother Merold’s view that the Bible does not teach the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. In addition to the passages he cited, I have also used Paul’s teaching in Romans 11:17-24 and the strong testimony of Hebrews 6:4-6 to show the fallacy of this doctrine. I also believe the prodigal son in Luke 15:11ff. represents a fallen-away Christian—one who began as a full member of his Father’s household, but became spiritually dead before finally returning home. I also strongly agree with brother Merold that we do not have to choose between the false unconditional security and no security or assurance at all. When I teach about the doctrine of grace, I put much emphasis on Paul’s point in Romans 5, that a right understanding of justification by faith is the basis of assurance of salvation. When we are saved, we do not just receive forgiveness (justification) bit by bit, sin by sin; we actually become forgiven persons and live in a state of forgiveness as long as our trust in Jesus remains alive.
Daniel Overdorf (Knoxville, Tennessee): Ben approaches a difficult theological issue with biblical integrity and a pastor’s heart. Without neglecting the academic side of the argument, he helps us consider how the doctrine of eternal security influences those with whom we speak in church hallways and around coffee tables. Ben rightly points to apostasy as the hinge point of the debate—believers are secure in salvation until and unless they renounce their faith, choosing to walk away from the God’s gift. I fully agree. Furthermore, I appreciate Ben’s call for graciousness toward those who disagree. Thank you, Ben, for these helpful reminders.
ABOUT THIS FIVE-PART SERIES: One workshop at this summer’s North American Christian Convention was called “Sticky Conversations.” Five panelists each offered a perspective on an issue that troubles Christians today, and then workshop attendees shared experiences and asked questions.
We decided to open these discussions to all our readers. Having already explored alcohol (“Is it ever right or always wrong for a Christian to take a drink?”) and pornography (“Is it a pervasive problem in ministry?”), this month we discuss eternal security (i.e., “once saved, always saved”), and we ask: “What does the Bible teach?”
In the next two months, watch for discussions of homosexuality and women in ministry.
Each month we will ask a few readers to join the “sticky conversation.” We invite you to contribute to the discussion by posting your comment with this article.