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Insight #246 — Eternal Security; Once Saved Always Saved (in-depth study)

What a wonderful, comforting promise! Once I am in Jesus, I can never be lost. If I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, I am forever saved. No matter what happens in my life, good or bad, I cannot lose my salvation. I am secure for eternity.

But is this wonderful promise from God or from men? Do you remember when the serpent promised Eve: “You surely will not die”? But she did die! We must investigate the source of the promises we are offered.

Listen to the prophet Ezekiel: “The soul who sins will die… When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die” (18:4, 24). If the righteous man turns away from his righteousness, he will die as a sinner.

Reasons to Reject “Eternal Security”

Someone will say, “That was under the Old Testament, before Jesus died to save us by His love, blood, and grace.” That is very true, but listen to the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 10:26-29: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

This Scripture describes those who “go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth.” Not just heard it; not just believed it; they received it. They received Jesus, who is the truth. Even more clearly, it says they were “sanctified.” Not just knowing the truth. They were sanctified, cleansed, forgiven, saved. They received Christ and were saved, but later on they willfully sinned. Yes, things are different under the New Testament. The punishment for backsliding Christians is worse than the punishment was for Jews who backslid! “Severer punishment.” Why? Because there is no greater love than God giving His only Son to save us by his blood and grace. When a person sins willfully who has been cleansed by the blood of Christ, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” That once-saved person became lost.

Hebrews says, “if we go on sinning willfully.” God has given us a will. We do not lose our will when we are born again. Nobody can force me to become a Christian. And nobody can force me to remain a Christian. Not even God. In both cases, it is a matter of choice, of free will. “Let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Rev. 22:17). And, it is still a matter of our will after we are sanctified. Christians can “go on sinning willfully” and look forward to “the fury of a fire,” the lake of fire.

Listen to what the apostle Peter, by the Holy Spirit, says: “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 Pet. 2:20-22). You cannot escape the pollutions of the world by simply reforming your life. You are still in your sins until Jesus cleanses and saves you. It also speaks of “a sow, after washing.” As we sing, true to the Scripture, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” So, here are saved people who return to their former life. Are they still saved? On the contrary, “the last state has become worse for them than the first.” Ever see a dog lick up its own vomit? Disgusting! That is the picture of a person once-saved-now-lost.

Arguments in Favor of “Eternal Security”

Someone will say, “Once a son, always a son; you may be a bad son, but you are still a son, and your inheritance is secure.” But what does the parable of the prodigal son teach? Yes, he was a son and he even received his inheritance from his father. However, he left home. His father did not force him to stay. Some time later, the son woke up spiritually and returned home, confessing his sins. His father received him with great joy. But what was the state of that son before he returned home? Listen to the father: “For this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:24). Until the son returned home, he was “lost” and “dead.” He was still a son, but he was a lost son!

Someone else will quote what Jesus said on another occasion: “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” (John 10:28-29). A wonderful promise of security in Jesus. But did you notice that Jesus did not say that the saved person will not be able to jump out of his hand? Rather, he was saying that no third person will have the power to snatch a saved person from Jesus’ hand. Remember when “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore” (John 6:66)? No one forced them to leave Jesus. But neither did Jesus force them to stay.

Another person points to the oft-repeated promise of now having eternal or everlasting life, such as 1 John 5:13: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” It does not say that you will get eternal life. It says they “have eternal life,” present tense. It is already a possession. I assume anyone would agree that having eternal life and having one’s name written in the book of life are two ways of saying the same thing. Now notice Rev. 3:5: “He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life.” Overcoming is a condition for not having our name erased from the book of life. You can have your name in the book of life and later have it removed.

Should I even mention the argument sometimes used when a Christian turns away from Christ? It is said that their later state is proof that they were not saved to begin with. Of course, there is no Scripture to be quoted to uphold this cop-out. On the contrary, the Bible is filled with exhortations for Christians to continue in the way of Christ their entire life. “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life… He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death” (Rev. 2:10-11). “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). “The gospel… by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:1-2). Scripture says we must “hold fast.” Otherwise, we believed in vain — it did us no good to be saved.

We must not abuse the grace of God: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). Grace is not license. Grace teaches us to live holy lives. Hebrews has already told us that those who turn back to their sinful life after being saved have “insulted the Spirit of grace.” They abuse grace; they do not understand what grace is all about.

A Vital Point

Before moving on, a very important clarification must be made. This whole matter is not just a question of refuting a false doctrine taught by some churches, whether the teaching be called perseverance of the saints, eternal security, or once-saved-always-saved. This issue is a very personal matter. It must be recognized that there are Christians in churches which reject this doctrine, who yet live as if the doctrine were true. The whole question is not just a matter of teaching sound doctrine; it is a vital personal question of our attitude toward our daily walk with the Lord.

How Are We Saved in the First Place?

Grace leads to another question. How is grace first applied to our lives? It is one thing to question if a saved person is saved forever. Of at least equal importance, we must ask: How is a person saved in the first place? If a person is not saved in the first place, he/she cannot remain saved. Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus promised: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). A few weeks later, the apostle Peter, baptized in the Holy Spirit, told the multitudes: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). All too often today, these texts are missing from tracts and sermons on salvation. Only verses about faith are quoted, and then people are invited to “pray this prayer.” Sad to say, much of the religious world has emptied baptism of its true significance and has substituted a prayer as being the moment sins are forgiven.

All too often, sinners are promised that via a prayer for salvation they are saved and will never be lost. But we must ask, “Where in the Bible do we find a lost sinner receiving salvation through prayer?” 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins.” But this promise is addressed to Christians, not to sinners. As for the salvation of sinners, the case of Saul of Tarsus (Paul) is extremely instructive. He had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, but he was not saved there. Rather, when Paul asked Jesus what he should do, the Lord replied: “Get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6). In Damascus, he prayed and fasted for three days, but he was not yet saved. Rather, the Lord sent Ananias to him (Acts 9:9-16). When Ananias came to Paul, among other things, he exhorted him, “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Call on the Lord, yes — at baptism. Having a vision of Jesus did not save Paul. Prayer and fasting did not save Paul. Paul’s sins were not washed away until he was baptized, calling on the Lord. Can it be any different with you and me?

Two false promises wrapped up together. People are promised salvation through a prayer, and they are promised that after the prayer they can never be lost. It is time for people to open their Bible — all of it, not just a favorite verse — and find out for themselves what God really promises us. It is time to become like the Bereans who “received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Study the book of Acts to see what it tells the lost sinner to do about faith (belief), repentance, baptism, and prayer. Study Paul’s letters to the churches to see how saved Christians are to live their lives. Nobody can earn salvation. Nobody deserves salvation. But neither can anybody live any way they want to live and still claim the grace of God.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.