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Eternal security

Debate regarding whether or not believers are secure in their salvation is not a recent development. Augustine, for example, describes a 5th century “amicable controversy”1 in which he catalogues as errant five views on the eternality of punishment and salvation2. In more recent days, J, Matthew Pinson, et al consider four major perspectives on eternal security: Classical Calvinism (because of unconditional election, perseverance of saints is necessary), Moderate Calvinism (God will preserve in grace the one who has believed, and thus loss of salvation is impossible), Reformed Arminianism (allows for the resistibility of grace after salvation), and Wesleyan Arminianism (loss of salvation can happen due to unbelief or unconfessed sin).3

Examining what the Bible says, apart from historical theological understandings, can simplify the discussion quite a bit. Issues such as the inauguration and duration of eternal life, the difference between one’s sense of assurance of salvation and the actual security of that salvation, and whether or not one can lose salvation once they have received it are addressed fairly plainly in Scripture. These concepts are all very much related, and ultimately they hinge on how one defines the concept of eternal security. Whether a person has recently believed in Jesus Christ or whether they have known Him for some time, questioning the security of the believer in Christ is a normal part of Christian growth. Even for those who have never put their faith in Jesus, they may occasionally wonder what the long-term significance of salvation is for those who have believed in Jesus.

There are essentially two historical answers to the question. In a synergistic tradition salvation can be lost, while in a monergistic system, salvation cannot be lost. Synergism (from a Greek compound of sun [together] and ergo [to work]) is a theological term meaning that God and humanity work together to accomplish salvation. Since achieving salvation is to some degree dependent on humanity, humanity can also achieve the loss of salvation. Older Christian denominations like Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and more recent ones like Methodism and Nazarene are synergistic, and teach that people can lose salvation if they sin to a severe enough degree.

On the other hand, monergism (from a Greek compound of mono [one] and ergo [work]) is a theological term meaning that God is working alone in accomplishing human salvation. Since humanity didn’t earn salvation or do anything to make it happen, there is nothing that a person can do to lose salvation—even if a person commits a severe sin. Presbyterian, Lutheran, other Reformed denominations,4 and also non-denominational dispensational traditions hold to some form of monergistic concept. There are nuanced differences within these traditions, of course, but this basic idea is shared: while God imbues humanity with the responsibility of believing in Jesus, God accomplishes the salvation itself.

But why all the theological terminology, disagreement on the two major positions, and all kinds of variation in between? The Bible puts things rather simply in regard to eternal security, though there are some passages that cause some to wonder if the believer actually is eternally and unconditionally secure in their salvation or whether salvation can be lost.

John 6:47 explains that the believing one (Greek present participle) has (present tense) life into the ages, or life eternal. According to Jesus’ words in this passage, the moment a person becomes a believing one, they currently possess eternal life. If a person committed a mortal sin or even repeated venial sins, according to Catholic tradition, this would “necessitate a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart.”5 But the need for a new initiative would seem to directly contradict the idea that the moment one believes in Jesus Christ, they are presently possessing life that does not end.

Ephesians 2:8-9 makes it evident that believers are saved by grace through the vehicle of faith. If the grace is bestowed and the salvation granted without merit on the part of the recipient, then how could one lose that grace by their lack of merit? They didn’t merit it in the first place. Further, Ephesians 2:10 adds important information: the believer is newly created in Christ Jesus. How can a person who has been created take action to uncreate themselves? That would be like someone who has been born taking action to make themselves unborn. This would be impossible. Of course, one can commit suicide—making themselves move from physically alive to physically dead, but one cannot make themselves be unborn. One cannot undo their origin, their birth. This is why Jesus referred to this new status of moving from unbelief to belief in Him as being “born again.”6 There is not an instance in Scripture where a person who has believed is told they must be reborn, or they must be recreated. Instead, they are told to walk in the newness of life that is theirs.7 If a person is made new in Christ, then that is their identity and their position, regardless of what they do after that.

Similarly, 1 Corinthians 12:13 helps us understand that believers become part of the body of Christ by the baptizing of the Holy Spirit. The word baptize is from the Greek baptizo, a term that means to “dip, immerse, wash, plunge…sink.”8 Baptism was a ceremonial means of identification. The Holy Spirit immersed us in the death and burial of Christ9 in order to give us a new identity. How can we be un-immersed—how can we undo a baptism that the Holy Spirit accomplishes on our account? We can certainly fail to walk appropriately, but one’s position (identity) and one’s walk (conduct) are different things altogether.

First Corinthians 2—3 helps clarify that a person need not be born again again and again; instead, Paul explains that if a person is walking in sin (as some of the Corinthians were), that person is simply acting like an infant and behaving as a person driven by their flesh. He doesn’t tell them that they need to be born again, he tells them that they need to build on the foundation (of Christ)10 with the right materials. If one builds with the wrong materials, their work is burned up—but they themselves are not. If on the other hand, one builds with the right materials, then that person receives reward.11 Thomas Constable points out that even the less desirable materials (wood, hay, and straw) still had value, but they simply weren’t what the building (in Paul’s metaphor) needed.12 The building materials were the good works that were prescribed and designed.13

In Romans 8:35 Paul asks if there is anything that can separate us from the love of Christ. His conclusion is that nothing—including no created thing—can separate us from His love.14 Because all are created beings, if no created thing can separate us from His love, then we cannot separate ourselves from His love. A.T. Robertson observes that “our Advocate paid the debt for our sins with his blood. The score is settled. We are free (8:1)…Can any one lead Christ to cease loving us?...The items mentioned will not make Christ love us less.”15

Ephesians 1 helps us see that all three Persons of the Trinity (God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) are involved in making our salvation secure. The Father predestines and chooses us to be in Christ, adopted and ultimately perfected.16 The Son redeems us from the penalty of sin with His blood.17 The Spirit seals us—He Himself is God’s down payment of eternal life.18 If we can lose our salvation, then the Father was either wrong or was overpowered (and then was wrong). If we can lose our salvation, then the Son’s redeeming blood wasn’t worth enough to overcome all of our sin—just the sins we committed in the past. If we can lose our salvation, then the Spirit’s sealing is impotent, and as He is the down payment of eternal life, if we don’t see that fulfilled, then God loses His down payment. How can God lose His own Spirit? That’s right, He can’t.

In 1 Peter 1:3-5, Peter provides a series of overwhelming points of evidence that the believer’s salvation is secure:
    1. According to His mercy—it is not according to the ongoing merit of humanity.

    2. Caused us to be born again—He caused it to happen, and once a person is born, they cannot be unborn.

    3. To a living hope—the hope is constantly alive in the present.

    4. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—it is through His power and His conquering of death, not human power or merit.

    5. To obtain an inheritance—an inheritance is that which is set aside for a person whether that person deserves it or not. An inheritance can be taken away unless it is confirmed in the final instructions of the one making the will. In this case, that will is predetermined by the Father.19

    6. Imperishable—by definition this inheritance cannot perish, because it was bought with the imperishable blood of Jesus Christ.20

    7. Undefiled—it is by definition pure and unstained.

    8. Will not fade away—by definition it does not lose its grandeur or brightness.

    9. Reserved in heaven for you—that which is reserved is assured, if it is reserved by God.

    10. You are protected by the power of God—Just as it was not human merit or power that saved, it is not human merit or power that protects. God accomplishes this by His own power.

    11. Through faith—some argue that God uses ongoing faith to protect a believer, and that if the believer does not maintain faith, then God doesn’t protect. If that were true it would make the believer’s being protected by the power of God a meaningless statement. His power would be limited by our ability and commitment to believe. On the other hand, it is clear that Peter is not suggesting that one’s position is secured by ongoing faith, but rather one’s practice is an ongoing demonstration of that faith.21 The outcome of the faith is salvation,22 while the ongoing practice of faith is a proof of the faith.

    12. Ready to be revealed in the last time—it isn’t given or bestowed in the last time, rather it is simply revealed—it is manifest.
Some express concern that if our salvation is secure, then we lose all motivation to walk faithfully. Such concerns often motivate leaders to adjust their theological systems to make salvation conditional upon continued faithfulness. Peter, for example, disagrees strongly with such adjustments. In his letters, often when he challenges believers to action, he reminds them of their position in Christ.23 He teaches us that knowing our salvation in Christ is secure is one of the greatest motivators for loving and serving Him. By believing in Jesus Christ we are born again—new creatures in Him. Anyone in Christ is a new creature. The old person is gone. New things have come.24

In this small sampling of New Testament passages affirming eternal security, the testimony of the Father, Son, and Spirit as recorded by John, Paul, and Peter provide a staggering weight of evidence that the salvation of the believer in Jesus Christ is eternally secure. The believer’s salvation is eternally secure simply because of what God has done to ensure it is so.

There are, of course, many passages that challenge believers to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, and even passages that warn believers sternly about the implications of walking in sin. These passages are vitally important and worthy of every believer knowing and applying them. But it is critical to read biblical passages in context and recognize the difference between a passage discussing the believer’s position in Christ, and a passage considering the believer’s practice in Christ. Confusing these two messages usually causes readers to confuse the things that God has done to secure the believer’s position with the things God requires of believers to walk appropriately in that newness of life. When believers understand what God has done for them and how He has secured their identity in Him, then they can rest in Him, having assurance—knowing that they are His and He is theirs.25 The practice for the believer, then, is not motivated from fear of loss of salvation but is motivated from love for the One who has given life eternal.

1 Aurelius Augustine, The City of God, Volume II, ed. Marcus Dods, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1871), XXI:17.
2 Ibid., XXI:17-22.
3 J. Matthew Pinson, gen ed., Four Views on Eternal Security (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 7-20.
4 See for example, Herman Hanko, “God’s Sovereignty in Sanctification” at the Protestant Reformed Churches in America official website, viewed at http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/cr-news/item/1637-god-s-sovereignty-in-sanctification.
5 The Vatican, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1854-1864, viewed at https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a8.htm.
6 John 3:3.
7 E.g., Ephesians 4:1-6, Romans 6:4, 12:1-2, 1 Peter 2:1-3.
8 William Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th Edition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 131.
9 Colossians 2:12-15, 20, 3:1-5.
10 1 Corinthians 3:11.
11 1 Corinthians 3:12-15.
12 Thomas Constable, Notes on 1 Corinthians, 2020 Edition, 61, viewed at https://planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/pdf/1corinthians.pdf.
13 E.g., Ephesians 2:10.
14 Romans 8:39.
15 A.T. Robertson, The Epistles of Paul (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press), 379.
16 Ephesians 1:3-6.
17 Ephesians 1:7-12.
18 Ephesians 1:13-14, and cf. 2 Corinthians 5:5.
19 Ephesians 1:3-6.
20 1 Peter 1:19-20.
21 1 Peter 1:7.
22 1 Peter 1:9.
23 1 Peter 1:6, 13, 2:1, 9-12, 21-25, 3:15-17, 4:1-3, 12-13, 5:1, 2 Peter 1:3-8, 10-11, 3:1-2, 14-18.
24 1 Corinthians 5:17.
25 1 John 5:13.

This content last updated: August 17, 2020

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