Can a person who accepts Jesus and becomes a Christian lose their salvation?
If a Christian chooses to return to a life of sin, will they go to hell if they never repent?
Can one who is saved ever be lost again?
These are important questions people ask.
Let's see what the Bible says.
But first, some up-front clarifications:
- This post isn't about pitting faith and grace against works. We all would agree that a person is saved by GOD's grace through faith in Jesus and not by their works.
- We aren't discussing Christians who are striving to live a holy life and, due to the weakness of the flesh, occasionally sinning. GOD's grace covers this (though He expects us to repent when made aware of our sin, per 1 John 1:9).
- This post is about whether a person can choose to follow GOD and later on, for whatever reasons, choose to reject GOD and again live a life of sin.
Reasons some believe a Christian cannot be lost...
Those who hold to the doctrine of eternal security—that there is nothing a Christian can do, once saved, to be condemned to hell—typically point to some combination of three points:
- In John 10:28, Jesus said, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand."
- GOD's never-ending love, as discussed in passages such as John 3:16 and Rom. 8:31-39.
- Some believe that certain individuals are predestined to salvation, regardless of how they live, and, as a result, can do nothing to change the mind of sovereign GOD. This view, often held by Calvinists, is based on their understanding of Rom. 8:28-30 and Eph. 1:3-14.
Why a Christian can choose to go to hell...
I strongly disagree with the doctrine of eternal security for numerous reasons, as did the Christians writers of the first three centuries.
Let's start by examining Jesus' point in John 10:28 by looking at it in context:
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
(John 10:22-30 NIV)
Note verse 27.
Jesus said His sheep listen to His voice and follow Him.
Following indicates an attitude of obedience—that's discipleship.
Following Christ is Christianity.
Jesus said if a person loves Him, they'll keep His commandments (see John 14:15-21).
For the one who is following—the one who is actively obeying (i.e., walking after [see Rom. 8:1])—Jesus, nothing external to themselves can snatch that one from GOD's/Jesus' hand. That person, in that state of active discipleship, is indeed eternally secure. (But they must continue to follow until death.)
This following does not imply sinless perfection, for we all sin—even the most faithful of Christians.
If the Christian confesses his sin, Jesus is faithful to forgive them (see 1 John 1:9).
This in no way implies a gospel of works, for it is only by His grace we are saved through faith (see Eph. 2:8-9).
We can never be so good that GOD would owe us salvation, for one sin makes us forever unworthy, without Jesus' forgiving blood.
The truth is, though, that our actions matter a lot to GOD. GOD requires and expects holiness (see 1 Pet. 1:13-19; 2:9-12).
It should also be noted that the statement in John 10:28 that no one will snatch Jesus' sheep from His hand does not mean that He will prevent a sheep from wandering off if it so chooses.
In fact, Jesus shows this is possible in his parable of the lost sheep recorded in Luke 15:1-7, as well as the parable of the lost (prodigal) son in Luke 15:11-32.
Yes, while nothing separates us from GOD's love for us, that does not mean we are unable to separate ourselves from Him and return to a life of sin (and its accompanying consequences).
Whom GOD predestined
While an in-depth study of predestination is beyond the scope of this article, let me simply say that when we look at Rom. 8 and Eph. 1 (the passages dealing with predestination), we see that GOD predestined "those who love Him" (Rom. 8:28), which, as we pointed out previously from Jesus' words, are those who obey Him.
It is these who will be glorified (i.e., receive salvation and eternal life).
GOD's expectations are unchanged ... what's new is the Savior
In the Old Testament Scriptures, we see that GOD expected His children (physical Israel) to be holy:
The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.
(2 Chron. 15:2b NIV)
10 “Son of man, say to the Israelites, ‘This is what you are saying: “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?”’ 11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’
12 “Therefore, son of man, say to your people, ‘If someone who is righteous disobeys, that person’s former righteousness will count for nothing. And if someone who is wicked repents, that person’s former wickedness will not bring condemnation. The righteous person who sins will not be allowed to live even though they were formerly righteous.’ 13 If I tell a righteous person that they will surely live, but then they trust in their righteousness and do evil, none of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered; they will die for the evil they have done. 14 And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right— 15 if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil—that person will surely live; they will not die. 16 None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live.
17 “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ But it is their way that is not just. 18 If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, they will die for it. 19 And if a wicked person turns away from their wickedness and does what is just and right, they will live by doing so.
(Eze. 33:10-19 NIV)
Someone says, "But, those verses were from the Old Testament. GOD was wrathful back then. The God of the New Testament is a God of love. He's different now."
We are indeed under a new covenant, for which we should be eternally grateful.
The blood of Jesus and the Law of Liberty are incredibly superior to the Law of Moses.
Yet, here, these instructions are dealing with the character of GOD, not commands pertaining to the Old Law.
From the beginning—before the Law—GOD has (spiritually, and sometimes physically) blessed the righteous and punished the wicked. Whether a person is righteous or wicked depends upon their heart and their actions.
While none can be righteous based on their own deeds alone, GOD has made a way in Jesus.
Jesus told the apostles:
You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
(Matt. 10:22 NIV)
And Jesus told the Jewish crowd:
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
(Luke 9:62b NIV)
A similar message was proclaimed by the apostles and New Testament writers.
Paul told Timothy:
11 Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
12 if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
13 if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.
(2 Tim. 2:11-13 NIV)
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said:
26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
(Heb. 10:26-31 NIV)
The warning of falling into the hands of the living GOD was given to Christians, not unbelievers.
20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
(2 Pet. 2:20-22 NIV)
Jesus told the apostles regarding those of the first century:
12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
(Matt. 24:12-13 NIV)
Consider likewise these statements of Jesus:
31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
(John 8:31-32 NIV)
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. ... 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
(John 15:1, 6-8 NIV)
Paul encouraged the Galatain Christians of the first century:
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
(Gal. 6:9 NIV)
James told the Jewish Christians of the first century:
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
(Jam. 1:12 NIV)
The Hebrew writer said of those who had fallen away from Jesus back to Judaism:
4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
(Heb. 6:4-6 NIV)
Jesus, in His revelation given to John, promised:
Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
(Rev. 2:10b NIV)
7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
(Rev. 21:7-8 NIV)
Yes, the evidence is very strong.
No Christian who lives on this earth is free from the danger of losing their salvation.
Lastly, consider that even the apostle Paul was cautious that he could be eternally lost. He told the Corinthians:
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
(1 Cor. 9:24-27 NIV)
Who invented "eternal security?"
As I mentioned earlier, the post-apostolic Christians of the first few centuries consistently taught that a Christian could, and would, lose their salvation if they returned to worldly sinful living.
It was the Gnostics—universally viewed as heretics by the early church—who first taught that their followers would be saved regardless of how they lived.
Consider these few quotes as examples. (Quotes taken from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, compiled by David Bercot and indexed from Philip Schaff's compilation of early Christian writings, The Ante-Nicene Fathers.)
So unbridled is their [i.e., the Gnostics'] madness, that they declare they have in their power all things that are irreligious and ungodly. And they are at liberty to practice them. For they maintain that things are evil or good simply because of human opinion. They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should experience every kind of life.
—Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.), p. 306.
Hoodwinking multitudes, [Marcion, the Gnostic heretic] deceived many persons of this description who had become his disciples. He taught them that they were prone, no doubt, to sin. However, he said that they were beyond the reach of danger because they belonged to the perfect Power. . . . Subsequent to baptism, these [heretics] promise another, which they call Redemption. And by this, they wickedly subvert those who remain with them in expectation of redemption. As if persons, after they had once been baptized, could again obtain remission.
—Hippolytus (c. 225 A.D.), p. 588.
Certain ones of those [heretics] who hold different opinions misuse these passages. They essentially destroy free will by introducing ruined natures incapable of salvation and by introducing others as being saved in such a way that they cannot be lost.
—Origen (c. 225 A.D.), p. 588.
Although they forsake the fountain of life, the [heretics] promise the grace of living and saving water. . . . Begotten of treachery, they lose the grace of faith.
—Cyprian (c. 250 A.D.), p. 589.
The Christians of these first few centuries—those taught by the apostles and by those who knew the apostles—vehemently opposed this teaching that all that mattered was belief alone.