The debate over eternal security persists in Christian circles: If Christians come to faith in Christ by accepting the free gift of salvation, is it possible to lose this by rejecting Christ or even returning the gift? Before we consider the biblical evidence for and against the doctrine of eternal security, we should keep a number of thoughts in mind:
First, we need to find the position that can answer ALL of these verses—not just some of them. Moreover, we need to find the position that makes the most sense of all passages—without twisting Scripture to support our own view.
Second, remember that there are shades of grey in the “lose-your-salvation” position. We don’t want to create “straw man” arguments of this position. Radical Arminians say you can lose your salvation from sinning too much. This, of course, is a heretical view, which denies salvation by grace (see our earlier article “Do Good People Go to Heaven?”). However, others say that you can lose your salvation by “returning the gift,” rejecting Christ, or changing to another religion. We admit that willful rejection of Christ’s gift is different than just sinning too much.
Third, it’s possible that some people appear to be believers, but they never actually were. We need to allow for this in order to harmonize many passages. For instance, Jesus said, “It is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Mt. 10:22; c.f. 1 Jn. 2:19). Both sides of the debate agree in the perseverance of the saints. But one side argues that this is something that you need to do to be saved. Others say that it is a sign of who you are.
Evidence FOR Eternal Security
Let’s consider the verses which seem to support eternal security:
(Jn. 5:24 NASB) Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
Regarding this verse, Merrill C. Tenney writes, “The assurance of salvation does not begin at death or at a future judgment. ‘He has crossed over’ is in the perfect tense, which indicates an accomplished transit and a settled state.” Note that this passage explains a past event. In other words, our salvation is accomplished at the point of conversion.
(Jn. 6:37-40 NASB) All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus explains that he will not cast out anyone that comes to him, and here, he promises that he will not lose anyone that comes to him.
(Jn. 10:27-30 NASB) My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 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.
Jesus promises that his sheep will never perish, and no one can snatch them out of his hand. Thus it sounds like divine power protecting the believer from losing their salvation. Theologian Millard Erickson writes,
Verse 28 is especially emphatic… In the clause ‘and they shall never perish,’ John uses the double negative ou me with the aorist subjunctive, which is a very emphatic way of declaring that something will not happen in the future. Jesus is categorically excluding the slightest chance of an apostasy by his sheep. A literal translation would be something like: ‘They shall not, repeat, shall not, ever perish in the slightest.’ …All in all, this passage is as definite a rejection of the idea that the true believer can fall away as could be given.”
D.A. Carson writes,
The focus is not on the power of the life itself, but on Jesus’ power… To think otherwise would entail the conclusion that Jesus had failed in the explicit assignment given him by the Father, to preserve all those given to him. The ultimate security of Jesus’ sheep rests with the good shepherd.”
1 Corinthians 1:8
(1 Cor. 1:8 NASB) Who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Greek word for “confirm” is bebaioō (pronounced bay-bye-AHH-oh). This was a word used for confirming or guaranteeing legal contracts. The fact that Paul used this word for the carnal Corinthians speaks greatly in favor of eternal security.
(Heb. 7:25 NASB) Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
Here the author of Hebrews points out that Christ continually intercedes for the sins of believers.
1 John 5:13
(1 Jn. 5:13 NASB) 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.
Romans 8:1, 29
(Rom. 8:1, 29 NASB) Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren
Advocates of eternal security point out that if a believer loses their salvation, then there is condemnation for those who are in Christ, which seems precluded by this verse. Moreover, if God knew that you would fall away, then he would never put you “in Christ” in the first place.
1 Peter 1:3-5
(1 Pet. 1:3-5 NASB) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Here Peter seems to say that our salvation is protected by the power of God himself. If we lose our salvation, this would mean that God failed in his work.
(Eph. 1:13-14 NASB) In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.
(Eph. 4:30 NASB) Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
The Greek word for “sealed” is sphragizo, which was commonly used to refer to a royal seal. A. Skevington Wood writes, “It [the seal] was affixed to a document to guarantee its genuineness. It was attached to goods in transit to indicate ownership and ensure protection. It also represented a designation of office in the state service.” Craig Blomberg adds, “Believers are ‘sealed,’ just like an official scroll was kept rolled up by wax insignia joining its two ends together.”
In addition, Paul uses the concept of a pledge to explain the believer’s security in Christ. Craig Blomberg writes, “Just as individuals who buy something expensive may pay only a portion of its cost ‘up front’ as a pledge that they will supply the rest at a later date… In modern Greek the word can refer to an engagement ring.” Of course, as Blomberg explains, an engagement ring is the modern usage of the word pledge—not the ancient use (c.f. 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5).
(Phil. 1:6 NASB) For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
Paul explains that Christ is the author of our salvation, and he will carry it out to completion.
Evidence AGAINST Eternal Security
Those who deny eternal security often offer certain common objections:
OBJECTION #1: If we receive Christ through our free will, can we also reject Christ through our free will?
Deniers of eternal security often argue that God would be eliminating our free will, if we couldn’t return the gift of salvation. However, this objection doesn’t hold for a number of reasons:
First, some free will decisions are irreversible. For instance, if I make the free will decision to jump out of an airplane, I can’t reverse that decision half way to the ground. Once I make the decision to leap from the plane, I’m going to collide with the ground—unless I made the free will decision to pack a parachute. In the same way, once we receive the gift of forgiveness, this is also an irreversible decision.
Second, eternal security does not override our free will. By rejecting our request to return the gift of salvation, God is not denying our free will; he is denying our free choice. While we have the will to reject Christ, we do not have the choice to do so. In a similar way, consider a prisoner in a jail cell. While he certainly has the will to leave the prison, he doesn’t have the choice to do so. While I might have the will to bench press 500 lbs, I do not have the choice to do so. While I might have the will to speak French, I do not have the choice to do so, because I never paid attention in class. In the same way, we might have the will to return the gift of salvation, but God doesn’t give us this option. There are “NO REFUNDS” on that transaction.
We might also point out that even if God denied our free will on this subject… so what? God would be overriding our free will to do something in our interest. For instance, when a little child wants to eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a responsible parent will clearly deny this request. Is this a cruel action on behalf of the parent? Of course not! Instead, the parent is denying their child something that would be devastating to their health and well-being. In the same way, if God denied our desire to return the gift of salvation, this will be in our interest. I highly doubt that anyone will get to heaven and say, “I wish God had let me choose to go to hell!”
Third, the language of returning the gift does not exist in Scripture. While the Bible does speak about blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:32), falling away (Heb. 6:1-8), denying Christ (Mt. 10:33), and the importance of perseverance (Mt. 24:13), it never mentions once that we can “return the gift” of salvation. While this seems to make rational sense, it doesn’t appear in the Bible. Wouldn’t we expect to see this in Scripture, if it was spiritually possible? In addition to this, we never see the language of being baptized out of Christ. It seems, biblically, that once someone is baptized into Christ, they can’t be baptized out of him.
Since God sets the rules for how we gain salvation, we should place biblical revelation over our rational instinct on this. For instance, imagine going to return a gift after Christmas. When you get to the counter, the sales clerk says, “I’m sorry, but it is store policy that we cannot accept returns after 30 days.” While it might make sense that you should be able to return the gift, that’s not the policy (or rules) of the store. In the same way, we need to consider God’s rules for salvation, and in his rules, we can’t return the gift.
OBJECTION #2: If we teach eternal security, what will stop Christians from going out and committing rape, murder, or other moral atrocities?
Deniers of eternal security often claim that this doctrine leads to moral atrocities. If we teach eternal security, they argue, this will lead Christians to get into sin. However, in response to this objection, a number of observations can be made:
First, understanding the grace of God doesn’t cause people to turn and sin more. As Paul argues, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2) Instead, people who really understand the grace of God feel motivated to give out to others, even as God has given to them. What about this message of incredible love and forgiveness would cause people to want to rape and murder someone?
Second, when we come to Christ, God gives us his Holy Spirit, so that we can live a life of good works. Paul writes, “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Those who know Christ also know the love of God through the Holy Spirit. When believers fall into sin, this grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30) and us. As a result, sin isn’t as exciting as it used to be.
Third, Christians who carry on in sin are most likely not Christians. When Christians supposedly meet Christ but continue in rampant, unrepentant sin, we have to question whether or not their profession of faith was authentic. For instance, John writes, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; 5 but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him” (1 Jn. 2:4-5). Of course, John is not claiming that we lose our salvation because of sin; instead, he is saying that we probably had a false conversion in the first place (c.f. 1 Jn. 2:19; Mt. 7:21-23).
Fourth, while God forgives us, God has instituted human government to check lawlessness (Rom. 13:1-7). While human governments are not perfect, they still prevent complete anarchy on Earth, which would be the worst state of affairs possible. Therefore, even if Christians know they are forgiven, there are still some natural, governmental restraints on evil moral behavior. Meeting Christ does not exclude the believer from going to prison or any other consequence of their actions.
OBJECTION #3: Many passages speak about the possibility of losing our salvation.
This objection is often overstated. In fact, when we look at each of these passages closely, we see that very few of them actually threaten the doctrine of eternal security. Consider each below:
We believe it is heretical to claim that a believer can sin their way out of salvation. The Bible is overwhelmingly clear that this is simply not true. However, we do hold it as a biblical possibility that a believer could forfeit their salvation by rejecting Christ. While we do not believe this is likely, it is still possible, and we wouldn’t break fellowship with someone over this issue.
Moreover, we should point out that denying Christ is a severe sin, and it would no doubt bring horrific results in the life of a Christian believer! While we hold the conviction that the Bible teaches eternal security, we would never encourage a believer to do something like reject Christ to find out. At the very least, those who deny Christ have no assurance of salvation, and this would lead to a life of fear and worry over our eternal state—a horrible consequence in and of itself.