Ask Steve: Can Salvation Be Lost?

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Question: Steve, can a believer lose his salvation? Can people know that a believer is truly saved?

Answer: The issue of the certainty or uncertainty of a believer’s salvation is a topic of immense debate. The Calvinist tradition teaches that the Christian cannot lose his salvation and will persevere until the end, while the Arminianist tradition believes that true Christians can certainly lose their salvation by not persevering in it.

Although outward observances of apostasy experience can certainly be informative , the best place to find answers to this issue is the Bible. Scripture clearly teaches the doctrine of perseverance of the saints – believers will endure in their faith until the end. In essence, they will never lose their salvation. It is not because the reborn believer does not have the will to apostasize (abandon the faith), but that he perseveres in faith (and in the fruits of the Spirit) because of God the Spirit who works in the believer to accomplish His salvific goals. This is not to say that there aren’t verses that hint at the idea of believer’s losing their salvation, but these verses should be rightly understood in the bigger picture of the work of salvation that God begins and ends, as well as our responsibility as Christians to believe, which means that we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).

Before we look at the issue of belief, we must understand what is the role of God in the salvation process. According to the famous passage of Romans 8:28-30, God is the author and perfector of human salvation. The passage reads, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 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.”

This passage is saying that God is powerful and sovereign enough to work out all things in the world (both good and evil) to His purposed end. And one of these goods certainly includes the salvation of sinners. In fact, verse 29 goes on to teach that God predestined/elected certain people before the world was created to be saved and eventually glorified. That means that salvation is entirely a work of God, not the work of fallen mankind. Whomever God wills to be elected are those who will be brought to eternal life when it is all said and done. If you look at verse 29, the phrase “He also” appears four times. Why is this important? Because the chain is unbreakable; once the process is begun with a certain person, it will come to completion, without anyone falling through the cracks. Those whom God has called to salvation will respond and they will be glorified with Him in heaven. This passage teaches the security of believers who have repented and trusted in Christ for salvation.

Another interesting note to see in this verse is the tense, which is all in the past (ex. He called, He justified, He gloried). This shows that the salvation of a believer is written in eternity past with God, and is not merely a future possibility. It is a certainty from a God who lives outside of time and space, seeing events before it happens and even authoring it to His desired end so that all goes according to His plan. The final observation we want to see is that God is the one who carries out these four actions and not man. All man needs to do is respond in faith to the calling of God, and even our faith is a gift from God, according to verses like 2 Peter 1:1.

John 10:27-29 teaches about the blessed hope of not just election, but preservation of believers until the day they go to be with the Lord. The passage reads, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me, and 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.” God is the one who grants eternal life to the believer, and believers will never fall out of the Father’s grasp because He preserves and empowers their faith until the end. That is why the Bible can confidently declare that those who have been justified will never be at war with God again (Roman 5:1), but that they will have peace, and will even bear fruit in keeping with His repentance (Matt 3:8) because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit who indwells every believer. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts of sin (Jn 16:8-9), grants repentance (2 Tim 2:25), justifies the believer (Phil 1:29), washes and regenerates (Tit 3:5), and promises to glorify (Rom 8:20; Phil 3:20-21).

This study of the security of salvation (aka perseverance of the saints) is also vital in showing us about the marks of a true Christian. How can we know a professing believer is truly a believer in that he is saved? Is there a way to find out? Scripture definitely presents many things to say about this topic.

A believer is one who has repented and believed in Christ as Lord and Savior (Jn 3:16; Rom 10:9). However, people who have seemingly “repented” have fallen away from the faith at times. How can this be? The only answer is that they never truly repented and submitted their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ. Their conversion was not real. It was never a work of the Holy Spirit. We know this because Scripture talks about what the life of a Christian looks like after they get saved. Those who don’t have these marks are most likely false converts who will either fall away from Christianity later on or they will die in their unregenerate state and end up in eternal hell.

All Christians will bear fruit. This means that the Holy Spirit will work in the Christian’s life to cause him to love God and obey His Scriptural commands. Although some Christians will bear more fruit than others, the point is that they will not have a fruitless faith, otherwise they possess a faith dead. That is the principle behind James 2:14-26. All Christians will have a changed transformed life (in contrast to their former unbelieving state) which manifests in different ways. Christians will love God (Lk 10:27), continually be mourning over and fighting sin (Ps 32:5; Rom 7:14), display humility (Ps 51:17; Mt 5:1-12), be devoted to God’s glory (Ps 105:3; Jer 9:23-24), hunger for God’s Word (Mt 7:21; Jn 15:14), be separated from the philosophies of the world (1 Cor 2:12; Jas 4:4), and have an eternal perspective over worldly things (2 Cor 5:11; 2 Tim 4:8).

That is why passages like John 14:23 reads, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words…” Those who have been reborn of God are given a new nature to love God and practice righteousness. Those who live like pagans, but claim to be Christians, are most likely not true believers and have never been saved and reborn to begin with. Some will even fall away from the faith and be hostile to Christ. That is why the Apostle John states in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

The best barometer of a believer’s profession of faith is not merely the time of decision or the fact that he participated in an altar call or signed a card. Rather, the best test is the fruits of faith that can be observed in the brief period of time after conversion. If it looks like God has been working in that believer’s life to conform him to Christlikeness, then an assurance of salvation can truly be given to a believer. However, if the “believer” does not manifest any desire for the things of God or what displeases Him, then he may be a false convert, and needs evangelization.

Recommended Resource: Saved without a Doubt by John MacArthur