Now, can we lose salvation once we’ve had it? Some would argue yes based on several passages. Personally, I think the Hebrews 10:26-27 is the strongest text given in support of this view. The other passages often quoted can be interpreted within the framework of either “true faith will produce good works” or “it wasn’t true faith to begin with.”
Let's start with the Prodigal Son. First of all, I don’t believe Heaven and Hell are the main issues here. If anything, the story points out that works, again, are not part of the equation because neither the prodigal nor the older brother deserves the Father’s love. They don’t receive any sacraments, don’t do anything good, and both are clearly wrong. Jesus is pointing out the unconditional love and forgiveness of the Father and how much He longs for the lost to turn to Him in faith/repentance.
Look at the structure of Luke 15. The Prodigal parable comes after two other parables with the same theme: The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. The chapter begins with Jesus hanging out with tax collectors and “sinners.” The Pharisees, who had all their confessions done and tithes paid, complained about Him and couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus spent time with such unrighteous people. The Pharisees were paid up as far as good works were concerned. But good works aren’t the standard of God’s favor, grace is (and thank God for that, because I’d certainly be lost with all my sins!). In the first parable, God seeks out the lost sheep (who, incidentally does nothing but trust God to carry him). In the second parable, He seeks out the lost coin (who, also, does nothing to merit salvation). And, finally, He seeks out the lost, prodigal (who, also, does no good works meriting God’s favor). What’s the point? Well, we don’t have to guess. Jesus states it very clearly:
I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. Luke 15:7 (NAB)In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Luke 15:10 (NAB)
The theme is the joy God has when someone comes to saving faith (i.e. repentance). Repentance is the other side of the coin of faith. To repent means “to change one’s mind” and make a radical decision of faith. It’s an extension of tangible faith (see Mark 1:15: This is the time of fulfillment. The
Matthew 6:12 is another passage cited: And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. (KJV) However, I believe this is referring to intimacy with God as a family member, not divorce from the family. That is to say, God is asserting the “reap what you sow” principle. If, in this life, you want to have an intimate relationship with God, you have to be forgiving. If you harbor bitterness, your holiness is compromised and God is not pleased with you. But Jesus doesn’t say here that you’ll go to Hell if you don’t forgive. I also believe there is a hint here that true Christians will, eventually, forgive because the Spirit of God in our hearts will bug us so much and make us so miserable in our bitterness that we’ll probably give in. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is primarily about practically living out our faith in this life and the consequences, in this life, of not living out who we are in Him. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t a prayer for salvation, it’s a prayer for daily living “. . . give us this day our daily bread.” The whole context is about living on this side of eternity (see also 6:34—clearly Jesus is speaking about living in the here and now). Also, Jesus isn’t vague about Hell in Matthew 8:5-13. In the passage, he’s approached by a Gentile (like you and me) in faith (not works). Jesus contrasts this Gentile with the
The centurion said in reply, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. 9For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come here,' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it." 10When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, "Amen, I say to you, in no one in
Notice, the centurion states he is not worthy and has no good works to offer Jesus. Then Jesus says, “in no one in
Another often quoted passage in favor of losing salvation isMatthew 18:21-35:
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 Then summoning him, his lord *said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (NAB)A rhetorical question: “Was the wicked servant a righteous servant before he was forgiven or was he always wicked?” In other words, did the master just pronounce what was always true, or was the man a good man who turned rotten immediately after the master forgave him his debt? The text indicates that the servant immediately, right after he’s let off the hook, runs into a fellow servant and demands his money. Here’s the point. The parable displays forgiveness as a fruit of a righteous person. A true believer forgives, period. A “professing believer” is very willing to accept God’s forgiveness, but is not a true Christian. And he’ll demonstrate his true colors by his actions. This guy was rotten all along. His actions proved where his heart really was when he asked for forgiveness from the master. It was never right. He never had true, saving faith. The point: true believers forgive.
Matthew 7:1-2 is another passage worthy of discussion: Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Again, I see this as talking about this life as stated above. I will say that the passage isn’t talking about “judging” like we typically think. It’s talking about being judgmental. A true believer will stop being judgmental as God sanctifies her. If nothing changes, the “believer” was never changed initially and doesn’t have the Spirit indwelling her. But I think Jesus is stating, again, the “reap what you sow” principle. God will bring back on you in this life what you dish out. If you’re a judgmental person, He’ll discipline you by having others be judgmental with you.
Another confusing passage isJames 2:24: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (NAB) A few things to note. As I mentioned earlier,
So what’s James saying? Well, the Book of James is often described as the Proverbs of the New Testament. It’s written for practical instruction and is full of all kinds of wisdom. It’s one of my favorites. The Book of Romans is a theological work written from an almost legal perspective. Paul is teaching for doctrine. James is teaching for practice.
Also, the term “justified” can have two shades of meaning. One is to legally “declared righteous” and one is to practically “demonstrated righteous.” Paul is speaking of the declaration aspect, and James is speaking of the demonstration aspect.
The main message of James is: You cannot separate your faith from your lifestyle. If your lifestyle shows no evidence of true faith, you have a fake faith and it’s worthless.
Paul is saying: Grace alone, through true faith alone saves. He’s not addressing the good works that spring from true faith. He’s hitting the issue soteriologically (from the perspective of salvation). In Galatians 5:22-25,
If you notice, James distinguishes between two “faiths” in v. 14. He says:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? James 2:14 (NAB)
Notice, he refers to “that faith” as distinguished from “faith that has works.” There are two “faiths” in the people who call themselves “Christian.” One is true faith that always produces good fruit, because the person has the Spirit of God inside and is born again. The other is “professing faith” that is just intellectual assent and not trust . . . the kind of faith that demons have of Jesus (as James points out). That is not saving faith. It’s not real. It’s fake faith and is not what Jesus was talking about when He refers to believing in John 3:16.
Ezekiel 33:18 is another notable passage: When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, then he shall die in it. I, however, take the passage as is. Nobody believes a righteous man won’t ever sin. But, if he chooses to commit serious sin and stays there, he’ll both be miserable and is in danger of actual death. Death can be a consequence for individual sins. I knew a man who was virtuous who chose to give in to sinful pleasure. He had affairs and experimented with other sins. He was miserable and finally died in a car accident. Do I believe he’s in Hell? No. I believe he is in Heaven as we speak. He had a real relationship with God and real faith. But his death was God’s discipline.
Also, keep in mind, Ezekiel is speaking to a people under the Old Covenant of the Law. God’s Spirit is not permanently in them like He is when people come to know Him now. However, Ezekiel 36:27 talks about what happens today when someone with real faith accepts the Gospel:
I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. 27I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NAB)
Isn’t it reasonable, just by this passage alone, to say that once that new Spirit is in us, we will not turn completely away from God ever again? Isn’t it reasonable that the description of a person’s heart above suggests that the true believer will, indeed, persevere?
Below are several more passages in the argument:
Matthew 12:50: For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother. (NAB) We’ve already seen what the primary will of the Father is: To believe in His Son (see John 6).
John 14:12 and John 15:12-14: Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father...This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are My friends if you do what I command you. (NAB) Can’t these verses be taken to mean that we will love and will do good works if our faith is real? That would certainly square with the other statements Jesus says throughout John’s Gospel.
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, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. (NAB) The passage is given as comfort to those who are “overcoming” because of their true faith. It’s a promise of assurance, not an implication that names will be erased. It would be like if my 5-yr-old came to me and said, “Daddy, will I ever stop being your daughter?” I would take her little face in my hands and say to her, “Precious, you will never, ever stop being my daughter.” That would encourage her, not make her think that it’s possible that she could ever not be my daughter.
Matthew 10:22, (see also 24:13, 7:21): Jesus is simply stating a fact, not a condition. “You’ll know if you’re the real deal with real faith if your faith stands in the midst of persecution.”
In the final post on this topic, I will address the Hebrews 10 passage, which is the strongest biblical argument for losing one's salvation.