Can a truly born again believer lose their salvation? Arminians are in agreement concerning the total depravity of humanity and our inability to make spiritual choices on our own. We are in agreement that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was for everyone in the world. We agree that God’s grace is resistible, that we can refuse his offer of salvation. And we agree that God’s election of believers is conditional upon us responding to his prevenient grace in faith. Where Arminians are divided is in response to the opening question; is it possible to lose one’s salvation. Arminius seemed to be vague on the subject, although it appears he accepted that possibility. The early Remonstrants expressed that it was a subject that needed more study and, at least initially, declined to take a position. Charles Wesley, the most prominent Arminian after Arminius himself, believed that salvation could be lost. Generally, those who hold to classical Arminianism accept that it is possible for a person to walk away from their faith, and are called 5 point Arminians. Those who would argue that salvation cannot be lost are thought of as 4 point Arminians; the Baptist tradition I grew up in is 4 point.
This question about eternal security, as it is called in some traditions, is emotionally charged. It is particularly so for those with family members who have made a public profession of faith and later turned their backs on it. It is comforting to believe that your loved ones will be with you in heaven rather than suffering destruction. It can also offer security to the lukewarm believer who believes that even though they are not currently walking with Christ, they have made a commitment to him in the past and so are still saved. But no matter how appealing the idea may be, if it is contrary to what the Bible teaches, then it is a false hope.
What does the Bible teach on the topic of eternal security? Unfortunately, nowhere does it explicitly say that salvation either can or cannot be lost. If it did, there would be no argument about it. Instead we have to more carefully examine the Scriptures to see that they have to say about it.
The Argument for Eternal Security
There are a number of passages used to support the belief that salvation cannot be lost. Jude 1:24, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy”, is one of these. This verse affirms that God can keep me from falling and is able to present me blameless before the Father. Those holding to eternal security see this verse as teaching that God does what is needed to keep us secure, it is not by own own efforts.
John 10:28-29 says that Jesus gives us “eternal life, and they [believers] 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.” Who, or what, could possibly snatch us of the hands of both the Son and the Father. God is greater than all and able to protect us from any who would seek our destruction.
In Ephesians 4:30 Paul tells us not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Sealing was a way to ensure security and prevent tampering. If we are sealed until the day of redemption, then there is no chance of apostasy; our eternal security is secure.
One of the best known passages is John 3:16 where Jesus says that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God has given eternal life to all who believe in Jesus.” This life is eternal, how can something that is eternal be taken away?
And what may be the most used passage to support eternal security is Romans 8:38-39, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love.
Together these passages express the security that we have in our relationship with God. God is strong enough that no one can separate us from him. We were foreknown by God, redeemed by Christ and sealed by the Spirit, adopted into the family of God. There is no possibility of falling from God’s grace. And if someone appears to have done so, it is more likely that they had never been saved in the first place.
One other argument for eternal security comes from Calvinism. If God has unconditionally chosen us and irresistibly called us to himself, then it is reasonable to assume that there is no possibility of falling. Since it was not really my choice to come to Christ, it would not really be my choice to remove myself from his grace. But of course this logic does not work from an Arminian perspective since we do not accept either unconditional election or irresistible grace.
The Argument Against Eternal Security
The Bible is filled with passages that express our need to endure to the end, to not turn away, to remain faithful. Take a look at the passages in the list below, all of which express a warning against turning away.
- Matthew 10:22 – And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
- Matthew 10:33 – But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.
- Matthew 24:12-13 – And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
- Mark 13:13 – And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
- Luke 8:13 – “Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away.
- Luke 9:62 – Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
- John 15:2 – Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away
- John 15:6 – “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.
- Romans 11:20-22 – That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
- 1 Corinthians 15:2 – By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
- Galatians 1:6 – I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel;
- 1 Timothy 1:19-20 – 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 Timothy 4:1 – 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,
- 2 Timothy 2:12 – if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us;
- Hebrews 3:12 – Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.
- Hebrews 3:14 – We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
- Hebrews 6:11 – We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.
- Hebrews 10:39 – But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
- 2 Peter 2:20-22- 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 it’s own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.”
Over and over we are warned about falling away, encouraged to endure to the end. Why would that be if there were no possibility of falling. All of these passages are directed at believers, at people who were currently following Christ, who were saved. Those who claim that salvation cannot be lost acknowledge that these are indeed warnings, but that the warnings are effective and true believers will heed them and thus not be lost. But that would seem to leave open the possibility that if the warnings had not been given, that believers could have fallen and once again become lost. Nor does it explain 1 Timothy 1:19-20 where Hymenaeus and Alexander have rejected faith and been shipwrecked; the warnings seemed ineffective in at least their case.
Now it is logically true that if unconditional election and irresistible grace are true, that a believer should be unable to remove himself from the grace of God. But Arminianism does not accept either of those doctrines, holding instead to condition election and resistible grace. There is a synergism involved in coming into relationship with God. Our human part is limited to submission to God’s gracious offer of salvation, but our faith is a requirement in salvation. But is persisting faith not a requirement is maintaining salvation? Hebrews 3:14 says that “we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.” We will share in Christ, only if we persevere to the very end. It would appear that synergism is involved, not just in the initial act of salvation, but also throughout our walk with Christ. God indeed will not allow anyone or anything to take us from him, but those passages say nothing about me removing myself from his care. I am protected so long as I persist in faith. If I do not, then I am worse off than I was at the beginning (2 Pet 2:20-22).
Three Phases of Salvation
All to often when we talk about salvation we are referring to something that is in our past; we have been saved. While I do not remember the specific day, I very much remember the occasion of my salvation and it is something I look back on periodically. But salvation is more than that. The Scripture also talks about salvation is the present and future tenses; I am being saved, and I will be saved.
Philippians 2:12-13 gives the clearest reference to a present tense for salvation as Paul tells the believers at Philippi, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This verse expresses the synergy involved in our ongoing salvation; God is working in us to accomplish his will, but we are also instructed to ‘work out’ our salvation. We can do nothing apart from the working of God, but we are called to cooperate with him.
This phase of salvation is most commonly called sanctification or growing in Christ likeness. Sanctification is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, molding and shaping us into people who will be useful in God’s service. But as the previous passage expressed, the Holy Spirit works with us, not against us. My free will is not removed when I come to Christ; I need to continue to choose surrender rather than resistance. There are a number of passages that express the consequences of starting along the journey with Christ, but not completing it.
Luke 9:62 is as clear on this as any when “Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.'” If we start out, putting our hands to the plow, but somewhere along the line turn away from the task at hand, then Jesus tells us we are not fit for his service. Only if we continue, remaining in Christ (John 15:1-6) are we going to be fruitful; the result of unfruitfulness is to be broken off of the vine and cast into the fire.
The third phase of salvation is what happens at the end of this life, often termed glorification. 1 Peter 1:5 expresses this the best for me when Peter, talking about believers, says “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” We are waiting for a salvation that is waiting to be revealed. It is reminiscent of the unveiling of a work of art; we know it is there, but what it looks like is somewhat of a mystery. So it is with our salvation; we know it is awaiting us, but what it will actually entail is beyond our knowledge. Instead we eagerly look forward to it. Later in this chapter Peter says, in 1 Peter 1:9, that we are “obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” The salvation of our souls is yet in the future, and is something we look forward to.
Paul expresses a similar thought in Romans 13:11 telling us “that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Our salvation is getting closer all the time. While we have been saved, and are being saved, we also look forward to being saved. The proverb “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings” is somewhat appropriate here. Salvation is not complete so long as we are living in this world.
When you look at the passages under the section “Arguments Against Eternal Security”, you will find quite a few that express the need to endure to the end, holding firmly, or otherwise expressing the importance of not deserting your faith. You might almost say that one could not lose his salvation, because in a very real way we do not have it as long as we live in the flesh. We have to have persevering faith in order to come to the end and ultimately experience salvation. More import than how you start the Christian life is how you finish it.
Assurance of Salvation
So if it is possible for one to lose their salvation, to fall from grace, is it possible to have assurance of your salvation? The answer to that depends to a large extent on what would cause you to lose your salvation. I knew a godly young couple many years ago and the young man told me something that stunned me at the time, and is something I have never forgotten. He said that if he were to look at a woman with lust in his heart, step out into the road and get hit by a truck and die, he would go to hell. His salvation was dependant on seeking forgiveness for each sin as he committed it. As much as I admired and respected this young couple, I do not find that taught in the Scripture anywhere, apart from a misunderstanding of 1 John 5:18, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” and similar passages in that letter.
If I don’t lose my salvation with every sin, are there any specific sins that can remove me from God’s grace? 1 John 5:16 says that “There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.” What is this sin that leads to death; sin that we should not even bother to pray for? John seems to define two categories of sin, some that are forgivable and some that are not. But what is the unforgivable sin? Some, like the Roman Catholic church, specify some specific sins as being mortal, meaning unforgivable., while others are venial, or forgivable. Others see this unforgivable sin as the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 12:32. And others see this unforgivable sin as a rejection of the gospel.
Rejection of the gospel seems to be what Paul is dealing with in Galatians 5:4 when he says “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” These are people who must have been connected with Christ at one point, else how could they be severed from him. What had they done to be severed from him? They had exchanged the gospel, and God’s grace, for justification by law, a different gospel. As a result, they had fallen from grace. And this would seem to be the key in the issue of losing one’s salvation. Have you abandoned your faith and the grace of God, either for a different gospel, or just to return to the world? If so, then you have not endured to the end, and are not saved.
I can have assurance of my salvation. As long as I am faithful and serving God, as long as faith persists, I am saved. If I fall short of perfection, my salvation is not impacted. If I am not growing fast enough, it does not impact my salvation. If I abandon my faith in Jesus, turning away from the gospel proclaimed in the Bible, I am no longer saved. I will not lose my salvation accidently. It is because of a choice on my part to take my hand from the plow and turn away (Luke 9:62).
Eternal security is not a critical doctrine for Arminians. Many Arminians do believe in the doctrine of eternal security. And many others, who might otherwise consider themselves Arminian choose not to identify as Arminian because of a mistaken belief that the possibility of losing salvation is a core doctrine of Arminianism. Many even go so far as to identify as Calvinist and that is indeed unfortunate since they are really Arminian. The views expressed in this post are mine, and are not held by all Arminians. Regardless your stand on eternal security, if you accept the doctrines of total depravity, unlimited atonement, conditional election and resistible grace, you are an Arminian.