Can a person lose his/her salvation?

Paul Derengowski, ThM

 

The question over whether or not a person can lose their salvation has caused, and continues to cause, an inordinate and unnecessary amount of mental, emotional, and spiritual conflict for Christians which has lasted for many centuries.  The main reasons why it has continues to bring much anguish and pain into Christian’s lives is due to either a misunderstanding of just what salvation is, who performs it, and who ultimately is responsible for keeping a person saved.  Factor in a large amount of confusion over just how much importance or impact sin and good works have, or are supposed to have, in a Christian’s life, and one has the perfect combination of apparently conflicting ideas to keep some Christians in an almost panic state, where they believe they are dying and going to hell.  Hopefully after a comprehensive reading of the following response certain ones can rest easier at night.

What is Salvation?

Simply put, salvation is a gracious act of God whereby he redeems a sinner, “dead in trespasses and sins,” who was destined for an eternal hell separated from God.  The sinner now enjoys not only the future prospect of living forever with God in eternal bliss, but is actually being set apart, or sanctified in the present, as he matures into the image of God that was tainted at the fall of mankind.

Salvation in the Old Testament is primarily denoted by the Hebrew word yeshua (יְשׁוּעָה) and can range in meaning from deliverance to help to security.  Its first occurrence is found in Genesis 49:18 and is ironically associated with Israel’s tribe, Dan, which in the course of the nation of Israel was one of the more problematic.  Jacob, Dan’s father, said that, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path, that bites the horses’ heels, so that his rider falls backwards” (49:17).

According to Hubbard, “In general, the root yš’ [from which we get yeshua] implies bringing help to people in the midst of their trouble rather than rescuing them from it.  It is almost exclusively a theological term with Yahweh as its subject and his people as its object.” 1  An interesting connection is also made between the OT yeshua and the New Testament Jesus, given that the name Jesus has its derivation in the word yeshua.  In fact, so does the NT word hosanna (Mt. 21:9, 15; Mk. 11:9, 10; Jn. 12:13), which literally means “save” or “help.”

When one turns to the NT, salvation is primarily denoted by the Greek word sōteria (σωτηρία), which carries with it same connotations as those found for the OT yeshua, or “deliverance,” “preservation,” and of course, “salvation.”  The verb form for “save” is sōzō (σώζω) and it, along with sōteria, are used frequently throughout the NT as the means to describe someone who has been, or is in need of, rescue from imminent peril, whether from sin (Mt. 1:21; 10:22; 16:25; Lk. 19:10; Jn. 3:17) or disaster (Mt. 8:25; 14:30; Mk. 3:4; Jn. 12:27).  The key to remember in each occurrence of the usages in both the Old and New Testament is that the one being rescued is incapable of contributing to his own salvation without diminishing the effect of salvation itself or discrediting the one doing the saving.  If the one in dire need of salvation is in any way capable of saving himself or contributing to his salvation, then that is not what is meant by biblical salvation.

Who Performs Salvation?

Since the sinner is incapable of saving himself or contributing to his salvation, then only someone who is capable of saving the one in need must have the capacity within himself to do so.  The only one with the omnipotent wherewithal to save anyone, when it comes to salvation from sin and its penalty, is God Himself.  The Bible makes this perfectly clear time and again.

  • “But the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; He is their strength in time of trouble” (Ps. 37:39).
  • “O God, restore us, and cause Thy face to shine upon us, and we will be saved” (Ps. 80:3).
  • “But I will sacrifice to Thee with the voice of thanksgiving.  That which I have vowed in will pay.  Salvation is from the Lord” (Jon. 2:9).
  • “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13).
  • “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).

If there is one erroneous doctrine or idea that has contributed to the confusion over who ultimately performs the salvation of anyone, it is the doctrine of the “free will” of the human.  Some falsely assume that all humans currently possess an uninhibited free will and believe that the Bible supports such a notion.  The fact is, though, the whole idea of human free gets its impetus from the early Hellenistic movement known as Epicureanism.  David N. Sedley explains, “Epicureans were the first explicit defenders of free will, although we lack the details of their positive explanation of it.” 2 Yet, though we lack the definitive details, Sedley goes on to explain the ethical dynamics of Epicureanism which parallels the attitudes of many “Christians” today who believe that free will is the determining factor in anyone being saved.  He wrote,

In ethics, pleasure is the one good and our innately sought goal, to which all other values are subordinated.  Pain is the only bad, and there is no intermediate state.  Bodily pleasure becomes more secure if we adopt a simple lifestyle which satisfies only our natural and necessary desires, with the support of like-minded friends.  Bodily pain, when inevitable, can be outweighed by mental pleasure, which exceeds it because it can range over past, present and future enjoyments.  The highest pleasure, whether of soul or of body, is a satisfied state, ‘static pleasure’.  The short-term (“kinetic”) pleasures of stimulation can vary this state, but cannot make it more pleasant.  In striving to accumulate such pleasures, you run the risk of becoming dependent on them and thus needlessly vulnerable to fortune.  The primary aim should instead be the minimization of pain.  This is achieved for the body through a simply lifestyle, and for the soul through the study of physics, which offers the most prized ‘static’ pleasure, ‘freedom from disturbance’ (ataraxia), by eliminating the two main sources of human anguish, the fears of god and of death.  It teaches us that cosmic phenomena do not convey divine threats, and that death is mere disintegration of the soul, with hell an illusion.  Being dead will be no worse than not having yet been born.  Physics also teaches us how to evade determinism, which would turn moral agents into mindless fatalists: the indeterministic ‘swerve’ doctrine, along with the logical doctrine that future-tenses propositions may be neither true, nor false, leave the will free.” 3

It is because of this Epicurean ideology of free will that has infected too many people’s thoughts, that when it comes to salvific security, they have none.  Why?  Because they falsely assume that they were instrumental in not only giving God the go ahead to redeem them, they also falsely assume that they are instrumental in helping God keep them saved.  They believe, in other words, that God has left it up to them to be “born again,” and then to remain in God’s family, God has once again left it up to them to perform certain do’s and refrain from certain don’ts.  When they come to realize just how burdensome such fallacious thinking is, they begin to doubt their salvation.  It is the very thing that the apostle Paul dealt with when he wrote the Galatians.

After lambasting the Galatians for falling victim to “another gospel” which placed them back under the dictates of the Law, Paul goes on the assault by asking,

You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?  This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now be perfected by the flesh?  Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?  Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  (Ga. 3:1-5).

Those same questions could be asked of those promoting a free will doctrine today, where no absolute free will is present.  If a person is passively born again by God, then just what did that person contribute to the act?  And if God is the one who has begotten His own by His Spirit, then just what can a person do to undo what God has done?

A person is neither born of his own will, nor is he kept by it (Jn. 1:12-13).  A person is born of God because his will is incapable, being bound in sin and abject rebellion against God, to make a positive move toward God (Ps. 119:155; Rom. 3:11).  And until those facts are acknowledged in the minds of those promoting a modern-day Epicureanism, then those same persons will go on doubting not only their salvation, but falsely identifying just who is responsible for the salvation of anyone.  With their lips they testify that it is God, but with their thoughts and actions they testify that it is the sinner, resulting in confusion.

Who Keeps the Saved Saved?

From the preceding discussion the only one capable of keeping the saved saved is God Almighty.  The individual contributed nothing to his salvation, and hence cannot contribute anything to keep himself saved either.  Some falsely assume that keeping God’s commandments, or once again performing a long list of do’s and don’ts, is somehow meritorious in keeping the saint in the good graces of God.  But such has zero warrant from a biblical perspective.  Works do not save anyone, nor do they keep anyone.  They are merely outward expressions of an inward activity that God undertook when he redeemed the saint in the first place.

In fact, Paul addressed just what works were, where they came from, and what they were designated to do when he wrote, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).  He we see that Paul points out that the saved person is God’s workmanship, which shows Who is, once again, responsible for the salvation of the sinner.  Second, we see the source of the good works, namely God, as created in Christ Jesus, “which God prepared beforehand,” or “before the foundation of the world” (1:4).  Then we see the purpose of God’s works, “that we should walk in them.”  Paul makes much out of the walk of the individual in the letter to the Ephesians, both before and after redemption.  Prior to redemption the person’s walk was one of spiritual deadness (2:1-2), futility of mind (4:17), and foolishness (5:15).  Afterward the person’s walk should exemplify worthiness, as seen in humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and diligence (4:1-3).  It should also exemplify love (5:1-2) and illumination, “as children of light” (5:8).

Some might contend that all of these things require a free will to do any of them.  Granted.  But, prior to redemption no one is free to do any of those things, and second, it must be remembered that not only has God prepared the works, that we should walk in them, but that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12).  Moreover, as Paul told the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free…” (Gal. 5:1), meaning that prior to redemption, no one is free.  So, as much as the free will exponent might still want to sneak his Epicurean argument in and steal credit from God what is solely due Him, the Scriptures make is quite clear that salvation is a gift of God, including its accompanying works.  Otherwise the sinner would have room to boast (Eph. 2:9), God’s grace would be nullified, and “Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21).

CONCLUSION

Although the topic of losing one’s salvation has led to both unnecessary worry and at times hostile rancor among warring factions in the Christian body, much of the concern and antagonism is born out scriptural ignorance and a naïveté that is willing to believe without careful consideration.  To make matters worse, those propagating what is essentially a works-based salvation incorporate foreign beliefs into the argument, as if they were a part of the Christian belief structure, and before long confusion and anger are the final product.

Therefore, the next time you wonder about your salvation, and whether or not you have lost it, stop and ask yourself the following: (1) What did I do to earn my salvation?  If you did something wonderful that you think attracted God’s attention, whereby He reached down and crowned you as something special, as opposed to those whom He did not, then you are fooling yourself.  You are not saved, nor were you ever.  God does not save anyone based on their “good” deeds, but solely according to His grace.  (2) If I did nothing to earn my salvation, then what can I do to lose it?  If you did something really stupid, and are totally guilt-ridden to the point where you believe that God has erased your name from the Lamb’s Book of Life, then once again, you are fooling yourself.  Since salvation is based on God’s grace, then so is His preservation, sanctification, and maturation.  You are saved, even though what you need to do at this point is confess your sin, rather than condemn yourself for something that no longer brings condemnation to those “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

You might as well face the fact that you are going to do stupid, sinful, egregious things all the rest of your life (Rom. 7:15-ff.), some of which are going to make you wonder if you will ever get the victory over, simply because you keep repeating them.  Yet, there is a big difference between committing intermittent sin which your mind and flesh are constantly in battle over, and willful, repetitive sin that one habitually practices as if it is the right thing to do (1 Jn. 3:3, 8, 9).  What needs to be remembered, though, is that nothing can separate you from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-29).  The best that you can do when committing sin is simply to confess it (1 Jn. 1:8), forsake it, and then mature and move on.  Otherwise, fooling yourself into believing that you can lose your salvation over what your have done is as big of a lie as believing that you are capable of earning your salvation through good works.  And the longer you believe the lie of works-based preservation, the more frustration, angst, and doubt you will produce, which ultimately will lead to anger, bitterness, and cynicism toward God.  And the worst case scenario, you will walk away from God and His chastisement, and potentially commit a sin unto death (1 Jn. 5:16), where God finally removes you from earth’s scene.

On the other hand, if you answer that there was nothing you did to contribute to your salvation, nor is there anything you can do to preserve it, then you are on your way to living the Christian life as it should be led, namely, by faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38).  Faith, not in yourself, but in the One who redeemed you.  This, of course, does not give you a license to engage in unmitigated, unbridled, licentiousness (Rom. 6:1-ff).  It simply means that there are going to be times when you will fall, and sometimes hard.  Yet, amidst the fall, God still has you in His hand.  Jesus made this perfectly clear when he said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall 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” (Jn. 10:27-29).

If you will simply remember what salvation truly is and Who instigated it, then you will realize Who ultimately is responsible for perfecting it (Phil. 1:6), and you can move on to more rewarding things in life which seek to glorify God, rather than yourself, which is really what the whole question about losing one’s salvation is about.

Notes:

  1. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., “ישׁע“, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vols., ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 2:556.
  2. David N. Sedley, “Epicureanism,” Robert Audi, gen. ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 270.
  3. David Sedley, “Epicureanism,” Edward Craig, ed., The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London & New York: Routledge, 2005), 221-22).