It’s the age-old question Christians have struggled with for centuries. When we accept Jesus into our hearts, does salvation stick? Do we always have the hope and security of salvation, or as insinuated in books like Screwtape Letters, can we lose our salvation?
And if once saved, always saved, what about the so-called Christians who leave the faith? Did they always have Jesus in their hearts, or did they implement a fake-it-till-you-make it Christianity?
No doubt, many of us have wrestled with these questions. Indeed, entire books have been written upon the very subject. As someone who has personally seen friends abandon their faith after I was so sure that they had accepted Jesus into their hearts, I have struggled with this topic for well over a decade.
Nevertheless, for the sake of this article, I will argue that once you have accepted Jesus into your heart and have committed to making him Lord and Savior of your life that you are saved. But this doesn’t answer the main question: can you have that salvation removed?
It appears even the early church wrestled with this. Let’s dive into the origins of the phrase and come to a conclusion together about the nature of salvation and whether or not it can be taken away.
Where Did This Phrase Originate?
Let’s analyze the origin of the phrase “once saved, always saved”. We don’t stumble across that exact phrase in Scripture, but we do have several Bible verses that point to the assurance of salvation.
But first, where did this phrase come from? It’s tricky to narrow down where exactly it originated, but from this Koinos Christian Fellowship article, we can get hints of it from Augustine, who influenced the Calvinist T.U.L.I.P. doctrine, primarily unconditional election. You can read more about that in this article from the Rev. Barry Gritters.
Yet, for those of us who do not ascribe to five-point Calvinism, do we have other evidence that dates earlier than the fourth century AD. Say, for instance, Scripture, which was written in the first century? Do we have verses that point to assurance of salvation once saved?
And do we have verses that appear to point to the opposite?
Let’s categorize them below and establish definitions of saved, genuine belief, and the conditions in which salvation must take place:
Verses that appear to point to once saved, always saved (operating word: appear):
John 10:27-30 “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, 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. I and the Father are one.”
Ephesians 1:13 “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,”
1 John 5:13 “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Romans 8:37-39 “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Verses that appear to say that a believer can lose their salvation (operating word: appear):
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.”
Matthew 6:15 “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
2 Peter 2:20-22 “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. 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. 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.’”
What Does It Mean to Be “Saved?”
We desperately need to establish definitions for this hefty topic. After all, most Christians can assert that there’s a difference between a person praying a sinner’s prayer and that having no effect on their life, and a person dedicating their lives to Christ and receiving a transformative grace that bears fruit in their actions, thoughts, and words.
So, let’s establish some definitions and particulars of salvation.
Saved: Delivery from one’s sinful condition and depraved life into the assurance of eternal life, via the death and resurrection of Jesus. Bodie Hodge explains this more for Answers in Genesis.
Grace vs. Works: As Christians know, one cannot achieve salvation by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is nothing we can personally do to earn salvation. Nevertheless, if a person has experienced the transformative indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they should bear fruit that shows there has been a metamorphosis of the soul. A person cannot simply pray a prayer and then continue business as usual.
Pilgrimage: As described in this article, the prayer is only just the start. We may receive justification (a one-time event that assures a believer of eternal salvation), but we must continue to run the race of life. We must continue to allow the Lord to transform us (sanctification). We call it a Christian walk, journey, or pilgrimage for a reason.
Does This Mean I Can Do Whatever I Want?
Where are the boundaries? Because God has saved us and salvation appears to be assured, can we go about living how we please, knowing that Jesus’ death on the cross will “take care” of our sins?
By no means (Romans 6:1).
If we have truly experienced the transformative salvation of Jesus, we need to put to death our old way of life. We have understood the corrosive effects of sin and we cannot return to that way of living anymore.
Does this mean if I slip up that I automatically lose my salvation? No. We have grace for a reason. After all, even Paul continued to do the sinful actions he didn’t want to do (Romans 7:15-20).
OK, you may say, what about those who leave the faith, where do they fit in this equation?
Can I Lose My Salvation?
No doubt, almost all Christians have known at least one person from a part of their church or Christian community who fell away from the faith. Personally, it was my best friend in high school who I was absolutely certain from the outset had her salvation secured.
Where do they fit into this equation?
Because by our definition of justification and salvation above, Scripture appears to say that once a person has experienced the genuine transformative salvation that they cannot be snatched out of God’s hand. So, with those who commit apostasy, do we simply throw our hands up and say, “Well, they were never truly saved in the first place”?
Or is there something deeper happening here? And what about those who truly appeared as though they were saved?
It’s a tough question to answer, as only God can know the heart of a person. Someone may appear to have their lives pulled together but may not be saved. They can put on a good show and even convince themselves that they have assured salvation, but as we witness in the parable of the seeds, trials and tribulations often have a way of revealing one’s true character and inner condition (Matthew 13).
In short, if a Christian has been genuinely saved, entailing a life that bears fruit due to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit, they cannot lose their salvation.
How Then Should I Live?
Can we sin beyond the repair of salvation? And what about those Christians who live unrepentant and sinful lives?
As for these questions, we can boil it down to two things. First, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Christians mess up every day, but we should be seeing growth throughout one’s Christian journey. This might look like someone becoming more forgiving, more patient, more loving, etc.
Only God can judge the heart. But if a Christian (or Christian in name) does not appear to be bearing fruit, if they continue to live a deliberate unrepentant lifestyle or their Christianity has no bearing on their actions, thoughts, or words, it could be possible that they have not experienced true grace or salvation.
This, of course, is an incredibly complex issue. The church has wrestled with this from the very beginning, and one mere article cannot tackle the issue in all of its complexity, appearances of exceptions, and expansive breadth of personal applications.
With that being said, if a person experiences a genuine, transformative salvation (justification) and the Holy Spirit continues to work in their lives to help them grow to be more like Christ (sanctification) that person can be assured of their salvation. If we mess up or sin, this does not mean that we forfeit our salvation.