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Foundations (11): They Shall Never Perish

W S Stevely, Ayr

Once saved by God’s grace it is impossible to lose one’s salvation. This is widely accepted and is usually described as "the eternal security" of the believer. While generally taught among assemblies, it has not been without opposition elsewhere. Groups such as the Salvation Army, which includes in its statement of belief, "We believe that continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ", do not accept this. The statement clearly implies that one can be "in a state of salvation" today yet be "lost" tomorrow. One can lose salvation and need to be saved again. This is also taught among many Pentecostal, charismatic groups of believers, and in a number of European countries is found among some assemblies.

The Salvationist teaching goes on to emphasise that "Assurance does not mean that our salvation is guaranteed to us against our own free will. It is possible to cease to obey Christ and so to forfeit our hope of eternal life". If this is true any settled assurance of heaven is impossible. We are all capable of sinning and indeed often do sin both by omission and commission. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn 1.8).

Possible to lose salvation?

The major difficulty that attaches to the teaching that it is possible to lose salvation is that, if true, it would mean that the work of Christ is not sufficient to deal fully and finally with my sin. If, in addition to His death for me at Calvary, I need to behave to a certain standard then His sacrifice was not complete. I have to make my contribution, by way of good works, before God can allow me to enter heaven. That we are saved "for good works" is clear; that we are saved "by good works" is unscriptural (Tit 2.14; 3.5).

Now, it is argued that "obedient faith" is not good works. However it is difficult to see other than that the addition of "obedient" in the statement quoted above is intended to suggest more than "the obedience of faith". When I hear the gospel and respond obediently to the command to repent and believe that is the "obedience of faith" (Rom 16.26). But "obedient faith" suggests that more is necessary and that failure will to lead to loss of salvation.

Whatever the debate around the terminology, however, the basic claim is that one can have salvation at one point then not have it at a later point!

The security of salvation

The Lord Jesus was explicit: "I give unto my sheep eternal life". Their security depends on being in His hand and in His Father’s hand. So He can say, "They shall never perish" (Jn 10.28). That makes my salvation depend on His grasp of me, not my grasp of Him. His ability to save comes from the fact that as the Good Shepherd He has laid down His life for His sheep.

Paul was aware that "in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing" (Rom 7.18). It was, as for you and me, sinful flesh. This is in contrast to the Lord who "was made in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom 8.3). Despite his sinful flesh Paul can define a sequence of events that, in the purpose and will of God, is considered complete, speaks of the certainty of ultimate salvation, and has no "escape clause". It is familiar to us and reads, "Whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified" (Rom 8.30). To be justified (and so "in a state of salvation") is therefore a guarantee of glory! In the context, to be "glorified" is to be "conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom 8.29). That is the final purpose of God for us. At the point when by faith we are saved God begins a work in us (Phil 1.6). It will not be complete until "the day of Jesus Christ" when we will indeed be like Him.

This is all due to the grace of God. The love of the Father and the love of the Son are placed upon undeserving sinners. Nothing can separate us from that love! God is the One who has justified and Christ the One who has died and risen to make intercession for us. So Paul taught the Romans. We believe it.

Why teach no security?

Why then has teaching that salvation can be lost arisen? A major reason is the understandable wish to encourage holy living and to ensure that those who name the name of the Lord depart from iniquity. It is argued that a guarantee of eternal security makes one more likely to treat sin lightly. After all, what does it matter if one sins?

If it is true that "once saved, always saved", does that mean we have an insurance policy and can now do as we please? Indeed, can we not enhance the opportunity for God to display His grace by continuing carelessly in sin? But, "How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" (Rom 6.2). Paul felt that sin was abhorrent. He could speak of himself as "wretched man that I am" (Rom 7.24), and in his preaching did not minimise sin but rather told his hearers that God called for "all men every where to repent" (Acts 17.30). True repentance brings home how dreadful sin is in the sight of God. How then can one continue in sin when one knows that Christ suffered for us? We were identified with Him in His death so that "our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin" (Rom 6.6).

However, teaching that suggests that it is possible for a believer to reach a state of complete practical holiness here on earth fails to take account of our own weakness. We may, by avoiding gross external sins, think we do well, but just as evil are covetousness, pride, envy and other sins like them.

A believer does not continue in sin

But the believer has not to continue in a habitual, careless life of sin. This is emphasised by 1 John 3.6: "Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him". Here the idea being conveyed is that if life after a profession of salvation continues to be a steady course of sinful behaviour without conscience and confession then there is no evidence of true spiritual life and the person is not saved at all.

But being saved is not just about not doing things! It is about positive Christ-like behaviour.

The parable of the sower and the seed is instructive. There are several kinds of ground. Despite early appearances there is fruit only from one. The others yield none. It is not that good ground becomes stony or thorny with the passing of time, but rather that the nature of the ground is shown ultimately by the presence or absence of fruit. That it is all too possible for there to be an enthusiastic but ultimately shallow acceptance of the gospel is clearly taught by the Saviour and is true to experience.

Superficial profession

A superficial profession is encouraged when the one who preaches suggests it is simply a matter of putting a name into a text or repeating a prayer. Now both of these can, in appropriate circumstances, be helpful but have to be accompanied by a genuine repentance. That demands clear teaching on the exceeding sinfulness of sin (Rom 7.13). An understanding that all sin is hateful to God is important.

For the Apostle John it was the case that one can have assurance. His first Epistle was written to "you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life" (5.13). Having been "called" and so "justified" and bound for glory it is important that we make our "calling and election sure" (2 Pet 1.10). We do this by ensuring that our life is marked by the display of Christian graces. That does not make it sure to the Lord – He knows those who are His. His word is, "I know my sheep" (Jn 10.14). It does make it clear to those who observe the behaviour of the believer and also brings assurance to ourselves.

Properly understood, "eternal security" does not encourage loose living but rather gives confidence to seek to live and work for God. We do so not to keep ourselves saved, fearing we might lose salvation, but rather seeking to please the One in whom we trust.

To be continued.


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